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June 11th, 2019
We’re all too familiar with the phrase boom & and bust, especially as applied to financial markets. But, this process of expansion and contraction is present in numerous unrelated areas.
This bloat & bust process can even be seen in the world of words, and understanding the mechanics of this process and being able to recognize when we are being swept away in the unproductive bloat of a word that popular culture has singled out for fame is essential for detaching ourselves from the danger that arrives when such linguistic bloat renders a word too nebulous, thereby busting the utility of it’s meaning.
Episode 332 of Tinkered Thinking explored how this process is currently affecting the words ‘power’ and ‘entitlement’, and offers a potential lens through which we see how our ability to effectively navigate the world towards results is drastically hindered.
The word ‘perfect’ has also somewhat fallen victim to this process of bloat & bust. Where once the word merely meant ‘finished’ or ‘done’ with regards to some goal or task, it has metastasized into a concept akin to an unattainable ideal. An obsession with outcomes instead of process is perhaps hindering our ability to even take a first step.
Another word that has perhaps grown beyond it’s utility is the word ‘expert’. It seems as though there is no group of people more capable of making a bad call than the authoritatively phrased panel of experts.
An interesting way to look at the etymological history of the word expert, is to first cut it up into ‘ex’ and ‘per’.
ex means ‘out of’
‘per’ which ultimately forms the root meaning for the word fear means something like ‘risk’ or ‘to try’.
An expert, in this case is someone who has pulled something ‘out of’ + ‘risk’, or who has discovered something by trial. And yet, today, experts are constructed mainly through study, not through practice.
The word expert has drifted primarily because of the new educational systems that have arisen in the last hundred years.
To highlight the nuance here, we can ask a simple question: who is more of an expert in flying? A bird? or an ornithologist?
Surely the word expert is either experiencing a bust or is beginning to.
One last example, and perhaps the most important one in recent years, is the word facts. The importance of this word cannot be overstated. Without a word that solidly encapsulates the meaning that we have ascribed to the word ‘fact’, we begin to drift into very dangerous territory as we risk more and more the possibility of operating according to a fantasy world that dislodges us from physical reality.
The word fact infamously took a dangerous hit when it was bastardized with an adjective in the phrase:
This phrase neatly encapsulates the exact problem that we must seek to avoid with our language. The thing about a fact is that there is no alternative to it. The phrase alternative facts is a contradiction when scrutinized.
The words ‘expert’ and ‘perfect’ have perhaps experienced a similar kind of contradictory bloat. To strive for perfection is really to never finish working on something, when the word perfect used to refer to something finished, and expert, if we hold on to the distant etymological meaning requires the very thing that most academics don’t really do: risk, which is now the domain of the entrepreneur.
So much of our world and what we have depends on language, and though the ordered, civil world around us might seem solid and permanent, it can crumble faster than we can imagine. Our first and best defense against having everything fall apart is a mindful use and scrutiny of language.
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