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Throw away your thesaurus

July 27th, 2007 by dk

We live in an age of runaway conflation. Conflation diminshes the value of language the same way inflation devalues money. We have more of it, but we can do less with it.

I’ve been canoodling with my inner muse about fundamental flaws in what we see, understand and describe around us. Mostly they appear as couplets: two words (mis)used interchangeably, leaving the distinction between them undefined and undefinable.

Throw away your thesaurus (for which, by the way, there’s only one word). Scold your high school composition teacher. Say what you mean and mean what you say, whatever that means.

Here, with no commentary, is a list of couplets that keep me afraid that my sentences will never be reduced for good behavior.

ignorance – stupidity
morals – ethics
war – crime
evil – wrong
ego – pride
confidence – vanity
certainty – inkling
choice – decision
precision – veracity
comfortable – familiar
unusual – unacceptable
depression – sadness
courage – fearlessness
waiting – loitering
accomplishment – bliss
success – satisfaction
distance – boundary
evolve – improve
necessary – sufficient
self-esteem – self-control
decimate – annihilate
desire – longing
fear – dread
confused – intrigued
frightened – excited
hunter – gatherer
stress – ennui
full – sated
full – fulfilled
time – money
cost – value
sadness – grief
power – control
brain – mind
optimism – hope
argument – discussion
peacemaking – conflict avoidance

These are the tips of some of the icebergs floating in my head this summer. (Brrrrrr!) If each distinction, however minute, is buried deep enough, once they break through the surface of our casual conversation, they have by then diverged a meaningful distance.

You probably have a couple to add to the list.

I’m going to try something different here for a little while. I will write each day, something. I won’t wait to make it “good enough” for you to read, but I also won’t mind it a bit if you improve on it. Interact with me on this page. It’s easy, safe and free.

If some of these couplets are more intriguing to you than others, drop me a line or post a comment. Let’s have a conversation.

{184 – 88 = 96}

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 billthepoet Jul 27, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    post – risk
    refresh – hope
    blank – silent
    loading – aching
    comment – connect
    conversation – not

  • 2 AllSaints Jul 28, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    language – text
    meaning – purpose
    saying – telling

    Speaking is both communicative and performative (among other things), and precision can matter for both. But how often will a higher resolution be determinative? Will the effort it requires chill the dialogue? (Or will your icebergs instead warm to the indefinite ocean?) Tell more.

  • 3 Dwayne Jul 28, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    average – common
    size – proportion
    measurable – valuable
    information – knowledge

    Regarding the last, the LA Times reports today that Bush administration officials have stopped calculating the number of hours per day of electricity residents of Baghdad are getting. (The number has been falling from 5 or 6 hours a day six months ago to only an hour or two most recently.) Why the change? The State Department stopped estimating it, choosing instead to report on power generated nationwide per day. Could that be because the oil refineries are getting power, but people are not? No way of knowing, because the new calculation can’t be compared with any precursor.

    It reminds me of the time when Reagan added the entire population of the military to national employment figures and then announced that the unemployment rate had just gone down. (I was only surprised that each soldier didn’t count as 1.5 employed people. After all, the ads told us “The Army. It’s more than a job.”)

    Control the data collection and you control what people know. And so, it’s also related to the couplet above it. “That which is difficult to measure tends to be undervalued.”

    By the way, this little change was announced Friday afternoon, after all the weekday reporters and news anchors had finished their work for the week. By Monday, when people start paying attention again, it’ll be old news so it won’t get any coverage. The Soviets used to use this trick all the time. They called it “the Friday afternoon news dump.” Maybe this president of ours learned the technique when he looked into Putin’s soul and announced he was a good man.

  • 4 benproctor13 Jul 31, 2007 at 7:14 am

    I admit that I had to look up the difference between morals and ethics. But that gave me some more conflated words:
    honorable – good – virtuous – righteous
    Does our society have consensus on what those words mean? What makes a person “good” seems so relative.

    I think “evolve – improve” are definitely confused way too often, and usually in a context where the two concepts justify each other.