TALES OF OUR TIMES: What Do Our Words Really Mean?

Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

What Do Our Words Really Mean?

My topic is how simple words often mean different things to different people.

Debate is a sturdy way to exchange information, if and when it stands on the bedrock of healthy skepticism and precise questioning.

At other times, debate mangles information when it descends into distrust and misunderstanding, as it so often does on the perilous turns of language. Think how easily these perils confirm our natural suspicions of others’ viewpoints.      

Examples come by the basketful in public meetings in which big companies discuss pollution and safety concerns. I have heard the words.    

Technologists are proud to say they “characterize” a material or a situation. In their lingo, “characterize” means to analyze all qualities and aspects of something in great detail.

Yet the word sounds very different to most ears in public, where bigots forever “characterize” Texans for flaunting their big hats and loud mouths. The two meanings are not only different, they are close to opposites.

How about “decay?” What leaps to mind? If you work at the lab, you may think of radioactivity and how it naturally decreases with time, so decay means areas get safer.

On the other hand, if you are not a lab wonk and have kids in school, “decay” sounds more like rotten spots in teeth that get nothing but worse. One word describes a desired outcome or a fearful outcome. Hear the one you will.     

Companies proudly tell the public about the “secondary containment” they use to protect around hazardous materials. It means to contain doubly—to use a pipe-in-a-pipe. What could pop up in minds of shopkeepers and schoolteachers?

Hmm. “Secondary” … “secondary.” Funny word, that: maybe something like low-grade, second-rate, or afterthought? Sounds like a pretty lax kind of protection.

Technical types work to “reduce the data.” It’s what they do. So what do we know?

Everyone might know that “reduce the data” means to draw meaning from numbers by using appropriate laws and equations. Yet, the plain words clearly mean to make the results smaller than they really are. Or perhaps to throw away half the data to fool people or to make less work. What could be plainer than that?

Here’s a jim-dandy one to look at: “model”—a showpiece of its kind, like a glamorous poser to sell new styles; or maybe a nifty toy railroad, as spotless as the mini-town the shiny train runs past on its tour.

Technologists proudly tell the public how they “model” equipment failures, to discover the worst harm possible if everything went wrong at once. The public always sees models that are arranged to look better than real life, more like pretend real; the techie’s “model” seeks only the ugliest. The thoughts are as different as “ball” and “bawl.” Which picture is easier to grasp?  

I wrap up the story with a true-life incident: An outside newspaper reporter interviewed a lab leader about the work in his division. The leader, call him Don for short, discussed their use of “hot cells,” those special facilities designed to let workers handle radioactive materials safely.

The interview drew out to 10 minutes … then 20. It grew clear that confusion was climbing from casual to rampant. The metallurgist finally asked the reporter, “What do you think a hot cell is?”

The reporter replied, “I really don’t know, but I guess it comes from irradiating the tissue cells in a worker’s body.”

Simple words do not always mean to others what they mean so clearly to us.  

And what is the remedy? All one can say is that answers spring up in the realm of awareness, thought and effort.

We know the chasm that separates that realm from the sure meanings found in dictionaries.

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