Words are Goopy
April 1, 2016
Words are goopy. Or at least they can be.
Words function as referents – signs and symbols that point to things and acts and ideas. Some of the things words point to are concrete, such as . . . well concrete. Some of the things words point to are abstract, such as “love.” So, to assist in communication, to promote “Right Speech,” we need to be mindful of what WE mean when we say a word, and what OTHERS may think the words means when they hear it. Maybe even go so far as to functionally or operationally define what we mean so that others can be on the same page.
I really like the example of how goopy words can be that was composed by a fellow who went by the name of Noam Chomsky, and which he published in his 1955 thesis "Logical Structures of Linguistic Theory" It goes like this:
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
If you study this sentence carefully, you will find that it is absolutely correct according to the rules of English grammar. Syntactically, it is flawless.
But semantically? Does it say anything meaningful? Well, as a matter of fact, because the words used in the sentence are goopy, because the words can have more than one meaning, yes it does say something meaningful.
“Colorless” can mean having no color, or being dull or pale in hue. But it can also mean lacking distinctive character; being dull and uninteresting.
“Green” can refer to a color, or more specifically to a range of colors, but it can also mean young and unripe, as a green banana. It can also mean sickly looking. So, if “colorless” means having no color, and “green” means a specific color, then there is a contradiction in the first two words of the sentence. But if “colorless” refers to being dull and uninteresting and green means young, why then of course ideas can be both colorless and green.
And what are we to make of “sleep furiously?” Well, sleep most often refers to a state of somnolence. But it can also mean “death,” as in Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To sleep, perchance to dream . . . “ And, of course we talk about computers going to sleep. Huh.
“Furiously” can be understood as intense activity, as hurried or rused, as when one pedals furiously to get home.
So, another way to express the idea of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” is “uninteresting young ideas die quickly.” Goopy huh.
And goofy. Can we somnolate intensely? I dunno’. Doesn’t matter. The point is, we need to make the effort to be precise and accurate in our speech. We need to make sure that when we communicate verbally, we communicate what we intend.
Huh. Right Speech. Right Intention.
Just some things for you to consider.