Fuzzy words

Last week we talked pictures, literally.  How better to get a picture from my brain into yours than using some words and shared experience?  No need to check out my Fb page (don’t have one!) or flick through a million pictures of funny cats.  Here’s some words, and ABRACADABRA there’s a picture in your head!

Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

What’s great about words, though, is that they are far more powerful than just pictures.  The right combination of words can put not only a picture, but a shared experience that includes all the emotion, the sounds, the smells, and the resulting feelings that all went along.

Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers

If we share that experience, we know the poor reception he got from the stands as he took first base.  We remember the boos he got after his first at bat.  We know the low expectations we had as he picked up the bat again, and the resulting euphoria as he put the ball out of the park.  And then we remember all the years of Jackie helping redefine baseball, not only in terms of skin colors, but professionalism in sport as well.

That’s the power of words.  And with great power comes great responsibility.

Words come equipped with fuzzy edges.  These edges allow us to put them together in many different ways.  At the same time, fuzzy edges can make it difficult to understand what we’re trying to communicate.  Let’s try some examples.

Midnight Glory.

I have no idea what it may mean, and the internet doesn’t have a bead on it either.  Yet, here I am (at midnight) putting these words together.  Did they create an image in your mind?  Perhaps you thought of a close word pair, “morning glory,” a whole family of flowers.  Or something having to do with a military mission, code named Midnight Glory.  Or something else.  But that’s what fuzzy edges allow us to do, put words together in almost any combination we want.  Here’s another, very scary, example.

Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

This phrase was created by Dr. Alan Sokal almost 20 years ago, and it looked very impressive to some journal editors of the time.  What they didn’t know was that Dr. Sokal was playing a joke on them, he knew this was a nonsense phrase.  The problem was that they didn’t know it, and published his “paper” as if it was real.  The joke was that no one could tell the difference!

Words.  Fuzzy edges.  We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, be careful out there.  We don’t want to send the wrong pictures into other people’s brains.


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