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The meanings of words

Words are fabulously complex. Anyone that has ever selected the wrong one, or has a mild appreciation for human history will be aware that for much of our existence, we were devoid of the complex and expressive grammars that we enjoy today. Pick the right one and people will want to hear or read from you more. Origins of Language, Wikipedia

Why this topic?

Today I was reading about how someone else words caused great offence. Sometimes I think this person is short-sighted. Other times I suspect it may be a deliberate part of their promotional endeavors to be controversial. Somehow controversy has become linked in some circles with relevance.

Potentially offensive materials
It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.Richard Dawkins on Twitter
For those determined to miss the point, I deplore the idea of a eugenic policy. I simply said deploring it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Just as we breed cows to yield more milk, we could breed humans to run faster or jump higher. But heaven forbid that we should do it.Richard Dawkins on Twitter
A eugenic policy would be bad. I’m combating the illogical step from “X would be bad” to “So X is impossible”. It would work in the same sense as it works for cows. Let’s fight it on moral grounds. Deny obvious scientific facts & we lose – or at best derail – the argument.Richard Dawkins on Twitter

I've been quite irked by certain groups "subtle subtext" narrative, they push on the offending materials. I don't see working as some high-bar to say, we need to repeat the mistakes of the holocaust. I think the intent was to rationally caution against that.

I actually find my own interpretation of the tweets to be that they convey an elegant, perhaps beautiful viewpoint that "Just because we can do a thing, and get the precise thing we set out to get. That does not mean it will create the desired outcome, because it might cause other things."

Personal note

If you've never read a blog by me, you'll know I struggle with words. I'm not entirely certain it's a problem I'm wholeheartedly invested in; but I recognize that I might never be described as a word-smith.

My mother loves words, I'm certain I'm closer to my father. I prefer not to cause harm with words, and will be particularly apologetic if you can show me how I have, even if it is a truth. Please never lead me down this path as sometimes my apologies don't have the desired effect, and it's rare I'll lie to you to comfort you.

Besides the avoidance of causing harm, I dip in and out. If you know enough to correct me, then just confirm understanding with a "Do you mean?". You'll win no awards or accolades from me by needlessly being a pedant.

A Happy median

Personally and academically, my command of the language is better than a lot of people. For a start many people don't speak English at all; but also amongst English speakers, particularly in poor areas and ESL communities, it's hardly 17th and 18th century prose. I'm good with that.

I like to hope I'm a Healthy median. I find people who delight in exercising their vocabulary without point quite insufferable, as it's generally their tiny clique that understands words as they do.

Meaning not universal

Just as there are regional, cultural and sub-cultural terms; there are also contextual boundaries of words.


Ask an English teacher what "consensus" means, and you could easily be led to believe a lot of scientists are morons that debate and guess at important issues, rather than prove. If you dig a little deeper, you'll find that like all very smart people; their ability to convince themselves of utter absurdities is the only thing that outstrips their intellect. They've redefined language for their clique, then insist everyone else is being obtuse for not realising the differences.


To give another, potentially incendiary example; the term "works" was given a lot of charge in a recent discussion of the tweets from above.

As I understand it works, means does what was asked. You could have a working murder-doll; but it would be divorced from a desireable one. The difference being that it could perform the undesirable task.

I'd even go as far as to say flawless and excellence bear this same cross that they should not be conflated with desirability.

Common knowledge

The last one I'd like to hit, nose-on is the concept or term common-knowledge. I'd contest that there is very little common-knowledge. Thoughts that have not been paid for, literally in blood, but more recently in the endurable court of opinion.

I'd contest that what should be meant is "things that are familiar to me". I find this takes the edge off of the snark and raw-emotion of something assumed to be common. Let's fact it, a lot of us simultaneously use terms such as common-knowledge, whilst also maintaining an image of common people as particularly feckless.

What can be done?

As with most things, I don't have world-changing answers. I maintain my wish to change the world, it seems to fall outside the boundaries of empirical measurement, the quantifiable and into a camp of best effort.

I would like to apply software techniques to have words do one thing, and make new words for new things, but lets be honest. It's a desire not an achievement in most of the software world.

We've got enough to argue about if not for our errant thoughts, or poorly expressed ideas; now encouraged by the dopamine algorithms to be shared with the universe in-perpetuity.

Be cool, be kind!