Language is perhaps the greatest of all human achievements. By producing sound waves through movements of my mouth and tongue, or making impressions on clay, paper or a computer screen, I can transmit thoughts from my brain to the brain of another person. Language allows two human beings to intersect at a future point in time in an otherwise random universe, as demonstrated below:

“Can I meet you at Starbucks tomorrow at ten in the morning?”

Which Starbucks?”

“The Starbucks across the street from Zara.”

“Great. See you tomorrow.”

There is a fallacy that the more literal we make language, the more precise it is. The exact opposite is true. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

The power of those words comes from the fact we know people are not equal. Some are richer, some are taller; some are better looking; some are more athletic (note: I am none of those things). The majestic force of this ideal is even though people are empirically not equal in fact, but all are equal under the law.

The same is true of literary devices such as metaphor and irony. If the answer to “Is it hot in here” is “I’m burning up” it does not mean one should call the fire department.  If asked “how was the steak” a response of “great, I love shoe leather” is clearly intended to convey dissatisfaction, despite the use of the term “love”.

Speaking of irony, Thomas Jefferson was a plantation owner. He didn’t merely own slaves; he actively traded them for profit and perhaps used them for sexual gratification. Today, one could ask in what respect his behavior differed from that of a Boko Haram warlord. They have slaves. He had slaves. He has a memorial in Washington. They are outcasts on the world stage. Put Jefferson in the hot tub time machine and he and the Boko Haram might have some ideas in common, such as the advantages of a slave-based economy.

Words also change meaning over time. Consider the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the United Negro College Fund. Today, “negro” and “colored” are offensive. Once, they were emotionally neutral in tone and purely descriptive.

Words also change meaning depending on the speaker. When an African-American such as Jay-Z uses the n-word, which is common in rap music, it is an expression of solidarity, from one member of a minority group to another, a code of sorts. When spoken by a white person, the term is incendiary.

Yiddish once bound Jews together in the same way. An expression for something being preposterous is “nisht gesthoygen, nisht gefloygen”, meaning “it didn’t rise up” and “it didn’t fly up.” The inference bout exactly who didn’t rise up or fly up is obvious, but only insiders got it.

Now you know what’s in my brain. Please comment below to let me know what’s in yours.


 


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