Monday, October 12, 2009

Cross and Other Words



About ten years ago Barbara bought me a crossword puzzle book. Except for a short time when I was in grade school, I had never been much interested in crosswords. However, by 1999 I had been retired for about five years, and I guess she thought I needed something else to do. And she was right – I was hooked.

The local newspaper runs two puzzles each day, and I almost always work both of them. As for the New York Times Sunday Puzzle, I sometimes spend days on it; for example, last week I finished it on Wednesday. And sometimes I have to give up and look at the answer. I really don’t think it’s fair to include foreign words and phrases in American puzzles, but the Times’ editors apparently do.
I believe the reason I love crosswords is because I love words. While I was in the Army in 1947, I had lots of time to read, and it was during that time that I came across S. I. Hayakawa’s book, Language In Action, which was a book of the month selection in 1941. A sequel, Language In Thought and Action, was published in 1949, and the 5th edition is still in print today. I thought I understood language, but the book started me on a whole new way of looking at it: semantically; What a word means to a particular person at a particular time is more important than the dictionary definition.
Most of us are aware that “The word is not the thing,” and “The map is not the area,” but do we really put that knowledge into practice? Usually we have the feeling that if we learn the name of something, we know something about it. But do we? I can describe a sunset to you until I get hoarse, but is that the same as if you actually viewed it?
However, naming something, e.g. a sunset, does give us the ability to talk about a particular sunset, sunsets in general, the physics behind a sunset, the colors of a sunset, etc. But if we were speaking to someone who had never actually seen a sunset, would that person have the visceral feeling that would be experienced upon actually witnessing the event? We need to realize that for a given person such a feeling can run a continuum from indifference to awe-inspiring.
When we speak to someone about a given event, it is possible that that person is not feeling anything akin to what we are feeling. For example, suppose three people are in a hospital room: a doctor, a patient and a statistician. The doctor says, “You have cancer.” As a result, the patient is terrified, the doctor is planning courses of treatment and the statistician is deciding which box to check on his chart.
Of course it is possible to see an event almost exactly like the person we are speaking to, but we need to keep in mind that he or she may have a completely different idea about the subject. And losing one’s temper, yelling, etc. is not going to change things, but perhaps reasonable discussion will. At least it’s worth a try.

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