The Problem with Words

Words are great!

What would we do without words?! Maybe not much more than chimpanzees do.

We humans are called the symbolic species. We use words as the carriers of the symbols, the distinctions, that we create or copy. Our ability to create and communicate with other humans is off-the-charts relative to the capabilities of any other animal with one of their kind. Words also assist us in communicating within ourselves to enhance our own thinking processes.

So what's the difficulty?

Our power in using words, however, is often severely limited and thwarted because many of the words we use as tools to communicate with others, and even with ourselves, are shoddy and don't serve our intentions well. 

“A man is only as good as his tools.”
― Emmert Wolf

Whenever we speak or listen, we are using words. How often do we question whether any one of the words or phrases we use, each one of which is a communication tool, is shoddy?

If any of our words are shoddy, using those words will interfere both with our effective communication with others, as well as our ability to think clearly and accurately.

Words that are corrupted by judgmentalness

Some words carry no other specific connotation except to express either a laudative or pejorative opinion.

  • Good

  • Bad

  • Right

  • Wrong

  • Fair

  • Unfair

  • Decent

  • Indecent

  • Deserving

  • Undeserving

  • And so on...

Other words combine judgmentalness with more specific denotations.

  • Honest

  • Dishonest

  • Courageous

  • Cowardly

  • Generous

  • Tight-fisted

  • Kind

  • Unkind

  • Marriage

  • Divorce

  • Winner

  • Loser

  • Hard-working

  • Lazy

  • Persevere

  • Quit

  • Graduate

  • Drop out

  • Loyal

  • Disloyal

  • Altruistic

  • Selfish

  • Giver

  • Taker

  • Proper

  • Improper

  • And so on...

Whenever we use laudative/pejorative words or phrases in our thinking or communicating, we are asking the listener to naively buy into implied assumptions.

If it's a laudative word, the often unexamined assumptions are that the conditions or behaviors indicated will bring higher benefits for the listener relative to other possibilities and options.

If it's a pejorative word, those often unexamined assumptions are that the conditions or behaviors indicated will bring higher costs for the listener relative to other possibilities and options.

Laudative/pejorative words imply that assessments have been made regarding the probable benefits/costs for the the listener within a given set of circumstances. But this rarely the case.

More to the point, these words most often create a "should" or "should not" stance that can easily set us up to fight with reality. Not only that, this stance invites us to leave unquestioned whether the implications of benefits and costs for the listener or listeners are accurate. 

Often our only meaning, rarely acknowledged, when using laudative/pejorative words, is...

If it's a laudative word, it means, "If you do this, or don't do that, or agree with this, or disagree with that, then I, the speaker and others similar to me, will like/love you, will approve of you, will praise you, will admire you, and/or think you're okay."

If it's a pejorative word, it means, "If you don't do this, or do that, or don't agree with this, or agree with that, then I, the speaker and others similar to me will be disappointed, will dislike/hate you, will disapprove of you, will condemn you, will lose respect for you, and/or think you're not okay."

Additionally, when we use laudative/pejorative words, it often means that we're a busybody, trying to interfere in the business of others or the business of "God," instead of minding our own business.

Words that are corrupted by ambiguity

Some words derive their corruption, not so much from being laudative or pejorative, but are shoddy because of their ambiguity.

Ambiguous "maybe"

Consider the word "maybe."

In "maybe it will rain tomorrow," there is no ambiguity. The speaker is just indicating a lack of enough knowledge to say either, "it will rain tomorrow" or "it will not rain tomorrow."

"Maybe I will come to your party"

In contrast, if you say, "maybe I will come to your party," are both you and you're listener clear about what you're saying?

Are you thinking/saying, "I'm not going to come to your party, but I want to be polite by saying 'maybe' I will come"?

It could be you're thinking/saying, "I'm not going to come to your party, but I don't want to face my fear that you will be upset with me if I tell you that"?

Or are you thinking/saying, "I need to get more information before I decide whether to come to your party"?

Or maybe you're thinking/saying, "I'm going to wait until the last minute to decide based up my mood and other options at that time"?

Perhaps you're thinking/saying, "I know enough now to say 'yes' or 'no,' but I feel uncomfortable making or telling you my decision right away"?

"Maybe I will exercise tomorrow"

Are you thinking/saying, "I will exercise tomorrow based upon my mood, the circumstances, or other options available at that time"?

Perhaps you're thinking/saying, "I don't want to feel the fear associated with either saying 'I will exercise tomorrow' or 'I won't exercise tomorrow.' Therefore I am saying 'maybe' to avoid feeling that fear"?

Or could it be that you're thinking/saying, "I am saying 'maybe I will exercise tomorrow' so that I can feel better about myself but without taking the risk of saying I will exercise and then feeling bad about myself if I don't do what I said"?

Ambiguous "hope"

"I hope I'll get the job"

Does it mean, "When I create the fantasy of getting the job, I am excited and happy"?

Or could it mean, "I'm wanting and thinking about getting the job in such a way that I'll be disappointed and be discouraged if I don't"?

Or does it mean, "I'm intending to get the job and taking actions to make that happen and maybe it will happen and maybe not"?

Or does it mean, "I'm thinking that 'hoping' for the job will somehow help me get it"?

Maybe it means, "By saying I am 'hoping' for the job then that will help me look good to others and myself"?

Perhaps it means, "By 'hoping' for the job it relieves me of taking any more actions or any more risks that could influence whether I will get the job"?

Other words that are often used ambiguously

  • Always, never

  • Because

  • Difficult, hard

  • Effort

  • Enough, not enough

  • Excuse

  • Idealistic

  • Important, unimportant

  • Mistake

  • Practical

  • Safe

  • Waste

  • Why

  • And many more...

Context makes the difference

Depending on context, almost any word, as an external symbol for an internal distinction, could serve as an effective or ineffective communication tool.

For example, consider the external symbol "good" in the following sentences.

"Be a good boy and behave yourself."

The use of the external symbol "good" here is associated with an internal shoddy distinction, most likely both for the speaker and the listener.

"If you'll bring me that hammer, that would be good."

The use of the external symbol "good" here is associated with an internal effective distinction, for both for the speaker and listener. It means that, if the listener gets the hammer for the speaker, then it will move ahead the results they're going for together.

Related links

Toxic words: freshen up your mouth

Are you messing in another's business?

Undoing shoulds