Just words: ambiguity

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Hey, Friend,
Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity [which I have now also moved to this blog]. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…

The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.

I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?

So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.
*ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move)
In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.

So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.

5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.

So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?

Or is there another way? What do you think?

As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)

Mat



This is the penultimate transfer of a post from the Panta Rhei Enterprise site. I had written this originally in July. I would think that apart from the dates being even further out, not much changed … for the better. I am still optimistic that it will. Eventually.

At least the tidying up of this blog and the one at Panta Rhei is nearing its useful conclusion.

Just words: herd immunity

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Hey, Friend,

It’s been another long work day. I had meant to write to you in the morning … Well, I am doing it now. So? How are you? Have COVID-19 and the general state of the little world we find ourselves in also impacted your daily schedule, workload, energy, emotions, expectations and even your ability to think as much as they have mine?

Am I really just one in a herd? And I am supposed to wait for herd immunity? I don’t know about that. Even the word irks me.

Immunity apparently came from Latin via French into English.
Not very rare and interesting — for a word.
What it meant first is interesting. Today!

immunitatem
: “exemption from performing public service” or

immunis
: “exempt, free, not paying a share”. What can I say? Is this where it is going this time?

Only in the late 19th century, the word immunity got its medical sense of protection from disease.

Don’t get me started on herd! What am I supposed to be? An ox? A bellwether? Or some non-descript cattle? What does it take to be part of this herd immunity?

Why are an animal metaphor and a strange old legal term being hooked up and dangled before us from time to time as a possible exit from a pandemic? Maybe, just maybe … there are better ways.

Hanging in there as always and thinking of you (plural, of course; but that’s a topic for another day…).

In any case. Just write. I want to know what you think. Can you derive any sense out of this?


As I promised, I am moving the posts from Just words from the Panta Rhei website here, one by one. And the series will continue here.

Just words: I give you my word

Scrabble: FEEL

And you get 7 points for this.

I’d like a word with you.
I give you my word.
You are twisting my words.
This blog became popular just by word of mouth.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.

This is a new beginning. The beginning of a series of blog posts. For each post in the series Just Words, I will select one word. Just one. Look at it from different angles. Play with it a little. Perhaps, see it in a new light. In a different context. And, today’s word is

the word

We are starting with an old Germanic noun. Linguists reconstructed a form wurda in Proto-Germanic, the assumed precursor to languages like Danish, Dutch, English, Friesian, German, and Swedish.

Is it important to be more aware of each individual word? Especially an old one such as word? One that we use quite frequently and in different contexts? One that different people have been using over many centuries?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Before I answer it, confession time: I am a philologist. (In Greek: philo- = loving; logos = word) I love words. Using them. (My family, friends, and colleagues tell me I use too many too often.)

So, my answer: Yes, being aware of one’s words is important. For two reasons: Words have consequences. Depending on the words you use, people will hear something different, feel something different, understand something different, or do something different. Or as Carl Sandburg said: Be careful with your words: once said they can only be forgiven, not forgotten. Words are powerful tools. Words can pinpoint and cover up. They can heal and hurt. And they can clarify and obscure. And so much more. Let me tell you two stories to illustrate.


I grew up in Finsterwalde in Germany. In this small town is a short street, named after Max Schmidt. The Max-Schmidt-Straße. For many years, I did not know who Max Schmidt had been.

1943. The war was in its fourth year. Max, a merchant in town, met with others in his local pub. Small talk and a beer or two. A time to tell jokes and anecdotes. Often with few words; one knew and understood each other. A popular opening gambit was the question: Do you already know the latest joke? The friendly reply was: no. And then the joke would be told. So, Max Schmidt sat down with his buddies and opened the conversation with “Do you already know the latest joke?” … … … “We will win the war.” One of the listeners mentioned the 5-word joke to a Nazi official in town. The Gestapo interrogated Max Schmidt. He came before the “People’s Court”, was accused of Wehrkraftzersetzung – undermining military force – sentenced to death, and executed in July of 1944.
For a 5-word joke.


When I was a student of Linguistics, I learned about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a hypothesis that discusses the relationship between linguistic structures in a language and people’s thinking and cultural values.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist and chemical engineer, became an engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company in 1919. In one incident, a worker had placed containers with liquid next to a heater, which started a fire. The containers were labeled “highly inflammable”. The worker had believed that inflammable was the opposite of flammable, like incomplete is the opposite of complete.
2 words. 1 prefix. The in- in incomplete or the in- in insure.


Do words matter? Even just one word? Carelessly or imprecisely used? The things we do with words …

Does it matter whether we talk about social distancing or physical distancing under COVID-19? Should one call it the Chinese virus? Are love and hate opposites? Can one compare apples and oranges? And which one is a correct word?

I will go through this word for word. You can take my word for it.


Originally, I posted this text on in the blog of our Panta Rhei Enterprise on May 2, 2020. It was indeed the first one in a small series, which I am now transferring here to this site.