Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Other Left

The NY Times has some author bemoaning the lack of precision in the use of the English language. The author states:

Americans can’t agree on much these days. They’ve obviously fallen out over politics. They can’t even agree on the facts. Now they’re fighting over words. For years, we mild-mannered lexicographers have been posting online about the most common lookup of the moment on our website. So when, in January, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told reporters he wasn’t going to define the word “betrayal,” and lookups spiked, we saw it as our duty to post a definition. But all of a sudden, people were furious, usually because of something related to Donald Trump:  “facts,” after the presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway created alternative ones, and “Svengali,” when this paper’s editorial board wrote that Stephen Bannon, the White House strategist, was “positioning himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.”

I am reminded of a friend of my wife, let us call her "Gracie" who had this habit, before GPS was common, of giving directions like, "Turn left" and then shout out "the other left". For those of you who missed the point she meant right.

Then there are those who keep saying I was born in Staten Island. In 1969 I found out I was born "on" Staten Island. Otherwise perhaps I was a worm of chipmunk. 

Having picked up five other languages in my lifetime, mostly to speak to cab drivers and hotel staff, although my French is not that bad, one learns a great deal about English. Namely, no one uses a dictionary, and we all are flexible enough to get the point across. 

Now words mean something. Take laws that are written. Take contracts. In each case there is often a section on definitions. Not the ones in a dictionary. Rarely is one used, especially since there are many dictionaries and they may conflict. Thus a law or a contract defines say a specific term which  is them some how restricted in the body of the law or contract. 

Does that solve the problem? Ever been to court? Most trials are about definitions. What was really meant.

Now take wiretapping. I have seen some in my life. It was on a pair of copper lines, indicated by a "red block" and carefully segregated. It was old fashioned telephony, analog calls on copper. Now we have all digital calls on IP and they are just as easily intercepted and wiretapped. Not the same technique but the same outcome.

Having been around the world several time what I also found is that English is the most flexible language out there. A cab driver can survive with say 100 words, prosper with 1,000. The syntax may be rudimentary but we somehow manage to "get the idea". 

So I would ask, when was the last time any one used a dictionary? Like libraries they are artifacts of the past. The keepers of the definitions like the author the the piece mentioned above want us to believe they are the holders of truth. In fact, truth is what we meant to say, not necessarily how it may have come out. After a couple of years I understood "Gracie". Somehow we all can do that, humans are rather interesting non AI machines! Let's see the Silicon Valley guys replace that one! Good for "Gracie"!