Saturday, April 30, 2011

On Language: Wiping words from your dictionary

Does language shape the way we understand the world? This question, long debated by psycholinguists and TOK students worldwide, is the subject of a column by Erin McKean entitled "The power of not knowing: What’s missing from your dictionary?" which appears in this weekend's Boston Globe.

McKean offers a history of people and groups—everyone from Chairman Mao, to Pope Benedict XVI, to the Philadelphia Flyers—who have proclaimed certain words banished from their vocabularies. McKean notes that such claims of intentional ignorance are quite common (especially, she notes, among men) and reflect the idea that the words we know and use impact how we conceptualize our world and, perhaps, act in it. Known as the Sapir–Whorf theory, this idea aknowledges the power of words and explains why, for example, a politician may proclaim (to a gathering of donors, of course) that he has wiped the word "defeat" from his vocabulary. McKean writes:
The idea of the 'word' surely has a certain power. Other kinds of information and other reference books don’t get quite the same treatment: You can speak of a place or thing as 'not [even] being on the map,' but there doesn’t seem to be a metaphorical equivalent for encyclopedias or almanacs, and in the age of cellphones, the idea of a metaphorically unlisted (or ex-directory) number is almost quaint. Most of the other 'lack' metaphors—being a few bricks short of a load or sandwiches short of a picnic, or not playing with a full deck—seem to indicate mental weakness, rather than strength.

And strength is what the 'not in the dictionary' metaphor is all about: These words that stand for difficult things (defeat, surrender, and failure, as well as other negative words such as can’t and no) may affect other people, but the stalwart individual can overcome them just by pretending the words don’t exist—that they are just strings of meaningless characters. Critical uses of this trope are much rarer: We’re far less likely to say that 'win isn’t in his dictionary' or 'he doesn’t know the meaning of the word victory.'
Most people think, Knowledge is Power. McKean asks us to reconsider this maxim. She notes, "Sometimes deliberate not-knowing, perhaps, is the way to get things done."

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