Your Words Have Meaning, But Do Your Meanings Have Words

We are advised to choose our words carefully. Something, in our haste to be heard first, the mouth often fails to do. The irony? Our dictionaries now have more words in them than at any other time in history, and yet perhaps too many from which to choose to get it right.

Take love. A four-lettered word asked to express so many many different meanings. How can it possibly have precise meaning when we use it for such divergent purposes: “I love ice cream…” “I love summer…” “I love my children…” “I love you…” ” “I love God….” “I love beach volleyball.”

Wait a minute, by that last one do we mean watching the game or watching players like Misty May?

Then there’s this word patriot. Is Edward Snowden an American patriot or a traitor? All depends on which side of the Moscow Airport you live. Is Barack Obama a great leader or a dismal failure? And by the way, what the hell do we actually mean by leader and failure? Maybe this is why medicine and pharmacology prefer the dead language of ancient Rome, it’s vocabulary safely frozen in time.

Altruism seems like it has a safe solid meaning, making altruists good guys. Right? Wrong, according to University of Oakland professor Barbara Oakley. She has hypothesized something she calls pathological altruism throughout our national history: “These are actions that hurt rather than help people. Like when you help your painkiller-addicted brother obtain more pills because you feel sorry for him.”

She uses examples like Freddie Mae and Freddie Max giving unqualified borrowers mortgages they couldn’t afford. She articulates the old advice: Don’t give a starving man a fish but a fishing pole. Warren Buffet, Marc Zuckerman and Mitt Romney would agree. Of course, they had both the fish and the poles when they said this.

The real meaning to our words then may be less in how we say them and more in how we hear them. Back to the Moscow Airport. Is Putin hosting an American patriot or traitor? All depends on which dictionary he decides to use. But then if that’s true, who is to choose the dictionaries? But then who is best qualified to do that in the first place? But then,,,

…well, you see where this is going.

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