Friday, November 08, 2002

What General Semantics Means to Me

I came across this quote today:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
--Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist and psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor (1905-1997)

When I read it, I realized that this gets to the heart of what general semantics means to me. Beyond the philosophical and academic aspects of how language works and how it affects our thinking, the principles and formulations of general semantics offer us a method to choose our attitudes in each given moment. By learning more about how language and thinking interact, we develop a framework for understanding the moment. But when we go beyond the academic to the personal, when we daily apply the formulations and learning the habits suggested by general semantics, then we begin to gain control over our reactions to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Note that this does not mean we no longer feel the effects of the world around us, nor do we become insensitive to the troubles of others. Rather, we acquire the ability to select which events will affect us, and which we will not allow to perturb our inner equilibriums. We make such choices based on a calm and rational evaluation of the relative weight each moment carries in OUR value system, or by considering the amount of "truth" in the emotional statements of those around us.

Without taking a moment to assess the moment rationally and with the higher portions of our brains, we fall prey to emotional outbursts and faulty evaluations, our own and those of others around us. With the tools developed under the umbrella of general semantics, we can choose our way through the shoals of daily interactions, choose our attitudes in each set of circumstances, and no longer find ourselves buffeted by each and every wild breeze that swirls around us.

Saturday, October 26, 2002

Synonyms, Censorship and Software

In an essay in The New York Times (�Bowdlerized by Microsoft,� October 23, 2001) Mark Goldblatt brought to light a curious aspect of the thesaurus that�s part of Microsoft Word 2000-namely, that it seems to have a built-in political-correctness censor. Type in fool, as Goldblatt did, and you�ll get nothing but the verb trick; type in jerk and you�ll get yank, jolt, tug, and twitch. No noun synonyms for these words appear at all-and no synonyms whatsoever appear if you search for dolt, dunce, idiot, goon, numbskull, or twit. Goldblatt asked Microsoft for an explanation and eventually got the following disquieting response in an e-mail: �Microsoft�s approach regarding the spell checker dictionary and thesaurus is to not suggest words that may have offensive uses or provide offensive definitions for any words. The dictionary and spell checker is updated with each release of Office to ensure that the tools reflect current social and cultural environments.�

This might annoy me less if the dictionary and thesaurus embedded in this product otherwise showed mastery of the essentials of good English. However, I learned years ago, long before Word 2000, not to trust the suggestions offered by the spell checker and especially not by the grammar checker. The types of sentences and "errors" it flags show clearly that someone took an elementary school grammer book and encoded the rules into the software, without any appreciation for how the rules might apply (or not apply) to sophisticated adult writing.

Some people bemoan the "deterioration of the language" when they hear young people using "like" when they mean "said" but I worry about the other side of that coin as much or more. I worry about people who think they can understand and control the evolution of a language by codifying a juvenile conception of correctness, or by proscribing "unacceptable" changes or worst of all, arranging for them to disappear, through censorship or editing.

The Microsoft employees that designed this arrogant thesaurus unfortunately took their design principle from many other features embedded in Microsoft products. The company operates on the principle that because they have developed good and popular software products, they can consider themselves the ultimate authority for all questions, not just about the usability or applicability of software. In their quest to make software more usable and more helpful, they steamroll right over the user, who in many cases becomes the "spam in a can" that simply justifies the existence of the product but does not need to take charge of it or decide how it will operate.

This infuriating methodology does not prevent me from using and recommending Microsoft products. They do have many wonderful features for ease-of-use and power. I do however advise, as with real life, that the user of Microsoft products should maintain a healthy skepticism when operating these packages and a mindful awareness of their potential limitations and restrictions.

Thursday, October 17, 2002


Has anyone ever recommended a book to you, saying "I KNOW you will love it" but when you picked it up, you found it dull, boring, bizarre or even unreadable? I came across a quote that sums up this experience and simultaneously gives an insight into how general semantics would explain this phenomenon:

No two persons ever read the same book.

-Edmund Wilson, critic (1895-1972)

Since we often pass a book from hand to hand, Wilson probably does not mean we each read physically different books. Instead, of course, he refers to the act of reading. No two persons read the same book because each brings a unique perspective and life experience to the process of reading and interpreting the words in the book. The idea that each life results in a different perspective seems so apparent and simple when you say it out loud, and yet most of us fail to apply it with sufficient awareness and diligence in every day life.

So how do you recommend a book without setting the situation up for failure? A general semanticist would say "I found this book interesting, readable, enjoyable, thought provoking, full of excitement or curiosity, in short, I liked this book." If that suffices to pique the interest of another, good enough. If the other wishes more information, one can elaborate with specifics--"the story of a dog and the boy who loved him", "discusses the development of the alphabet and how reading became a widely practised art," etc. Of course, even at this point, the recommendation has strayed into the highly subjective,since another person reading the "same" book might not see the story of the dog as anything like the central thread of the book.

Stop at "I liked this book," and you cannot go wrong.

Monday, October 14, 2002

National Dictionary Day

Noah Webster came into the world on October 16. His name has since become synonymous with dictionaries, and now we celebrate his birthday as National Dictionary Day. Go ahead, crack open a dictionary and look up a word, just for fun. Or better still, just open a dictionary at random and read a few of the words. You will most likely learn something, and not necessarily just a definition.

Words hold the history not only of our language but of our culture. As the culture changes, words emerge to describe new ideas, or fall away as their subjects fade into history. Sometimes a word evolves into new meanings to keep up with new usages.

If you like to use the internet (and you probably do, or you wouldn't have stopped by here...) you can satisfy your dictionary browsing needs at OneLook, an incredible dictionary compendium site.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002


Everything you've learned in school as 'obvious' becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There's not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
-R. Buckminster Fuller, engineer, designer, and architect (1895-1983)

Friday, September 27, 2002

On the Written, or Scribbled, Word

Will the near-ubiquitous computer keyboard eventually produce a generation who only know how to type but cannot write with a pen or pencil? The problem doesn't seem to have developed as of yet. Indeed, the current issue on computers and handwriting would appear to lie in the opposite direction--how to teach computers to successfully recognize handwriting. In their efforts to produce smaller and lighter computing devices, computer makers some years back developed small touch-sensitive screens where users drew letters or wrote longhand instead of typing on tiny keyboards. Interpreting these scrawls has proved annoying elusive, but several companies continue to try. The issue brings to mind questions on several levels--how far do you adapt to the individual versus requiring the adoption of a "standard" set of squiggles, as in the Graffiti language used on most PDAs, and would we get more mileage out of simply storing images of handwritten notes instead of expending processor time converting them to computer readable text? On a completely different level, might this result in a loss of diversity in handwriting styles over time? Do we mind that?
Read the NY Times article.

What's in a Word

Congress found itself evaluating the difference between "and" and "to" this week, in debates on a proposed resolution to declare support for the President Bush's campaign to declare war on Iraq. When it comes to putting their names on a resolution that will undoubtedly not receive universal agreement around the world, the representatives in Congress found themselves exquisitely sensitive to nuances in meaning. "You try to get to an understanding not only in terms of what is written, but how can it be interpreted," claims Representative Dick Armey, the House majority leader. Who better to appreciate the fine distinctions between definitions than people whose entire careers rest on how the public interprets their statements and promises? The question for me becomes not "which word did they finally settle on" but rather "how do I evaluate their motives for picking one word over another?"
Read the NY Times article.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Language in the, Like, News

Linguists rarely make the news, so each occasion warrants notice, even if it falls into the category of "Offbeat News". Muffy Siegel, a linguist at Temple University, made a bit of a splash in the popular press when she published her research on the use of the word "like" amongst young speakers of English in America. Contrary to the prevailing opinion amongst linguists that "like" acts merely as a filler in conversation, like "um," Siegel discovered that it plays several roles, and can substantially change the meaning in sentences. Read about her unusual research methodologyand her scholarly report in article on Temple University's web site.


I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.
-Jorge Luis Borges, writer (1899-1986)

Monday, August 12, 2002

---------------------- ^

Marketing copy provides fertile ground for examples of extreme abuse of language, not just grammatically but semantically. Where does truth in advertising start and end, and how much can a company get away with by appropriating the far ends of the spectrum?

For example, consider this statement, taken from sidebar ad for Dell computers seen on a CNN web page: "Your perfect computer at your price." Now, we all know what they intend by this ad, that they do pretty good computers and believe they have competitive prices. But one could interpret this as meaning Dell offers the most incredible computer possible for practically nothing. After all, what does "perfect" mean? and what sort of price would qualify as "my price"? Does the extreme nature of the statement nullify its lack of truth because "nobody" would interpret it as true? On the other hand, does the promise of perfection still have some impact on the mind of the buyer?

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Quote on the nature of thought

Perhaps our thinking exemplifies a selective system. First lots of random scattered ideas compete for survival. Then comes the selection for what works best -- one idea dominates, and this is followed by its amplification. Perhaps the moral... is that you never learn anything unless you are willing to take a risk and tolerate a little randomness in your life.
--Heinz Pagels, American physicist 1988

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Quote and Comment

Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, dramatist, novelist, and philosopher (1749-1832)

I discovered recently during a trip to France that my interest in language has its roots in my high school French classes. Although I have maintained my ability to read French to some degree, by studying the French versions of appliance directions and clothing labels, I had not spent much time analyzing or even remembering much about the experience of learning French in the first place.

When I left for France on a trip sponsored by the Portland Audubon Society, I started a journal of my impressions for the purposes of writing an article for ETC, a journal of general semantics . That prompted me to summon the roots of my love for the French language, which lead to realize that I learned much more than French in those classes.

My teacher had grown up in Paris and spoke French as a native. When I realized that she "saw" the gender in objects, I began to sense that language can influence how you conceive and think about the world.

Thursday, July 18, 2002


We are getting into semantics again. If we use words, there is a very grave danger they will be misinterpreted.
--H. R. Haldeman, "plumber", testifying in his own defense.

Monday, July 08, 2002

Psychology and Investing

How you feel about yourself and how you think about the world has a significant effect on how well you manage money. This article by Laura Bruce at shows that we all operate with certain brain illusions and our investments suffer for it.
Investor psychology

Friday, July 05, 2002


Time changes all things: there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.
-Ferdinand de Saussure, linguist, (1857-1913)

Monday, June 24, 2002

Testing and Censorship

The NY State Regents' English exam includes excerpts from modern literature for the purpose of testing writing and reading competency. However, the NY Civil Liberties Union has charged that the Board signficantly alters these excerpts to remove racial and sexual references and other references deemed potentially offensive. The authors of these works find the practice outrageous. - Groups call for end to 'censorship' on N.Y. exams - June 3, 2002

Monday, June 03, 2002

Postmodern thought from the 17th century?

Lunatic or visionary polymath, you decide. Athanasius Kircher could qualify as both.
A Postmodernist of the 1600's Is Back in Fashion

Friday, May 03, 2002

Words and Things

An eccentric philosophy professor gave a one question final exam after a semester dealing with a broad array of topics. The class was already seated and ready to go when the Prof picked up his chair, plopped it on his desk, and wrote on the board, "Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist." Fingers flew, erasers erased, blue books were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class however, was up and finished in less than a minute. Weeks later when the grades were posted, the rest of the group wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all. What did he write, they asked?

"What chair?"

Thursday, May 02, 2002

Getting NonVerbal with Ones and Zeroes

If "a picture is worth a thousand words," what might a little glowing orb tell you? This one can tell you the state of the weather or the direction of the stock market, in a single glance.
Ambient Devices - Ambient Orb

Monday, April 01, 2002

The History of a Word

Encapsulated into any word there lies a history, not only of that word, but of the people who use that word. We use words as the coin of time-binding, making it possible to pass on meaning to those not present either in space or time. But words also tell a story about the time in which they evolved, the people who first used them in a certain context and even the meaning intended by those speakers.

In the following article, taken from a segment on NPR's Morning Edition, Neva Grant uses research by Allan Walker Read to trace the origin and original meaning of the phrase "OK". The story tells us as much or more about the era as about the word itself.

'OK', Present at the Creation

Sunday, March 31, 2002

Time-Binding in the 21st Century

In this article from the SF Gate web site, Anu Garg discusses the enormous amount of data currently available throught Internet Archive, and the enormous difficulties the site has trying to make the data available in a useful manner.

Taming The Data / The Internet Archive searches for a way to turn a morass into a resource

Eggs and Teggnology

Just in time for Easter comes this playful article about technology, oology and words, from Anu Garg, wordsmith and curator of the A.Word.A.Day site.

Eggs and Computers / The connection between technology and oology

Bertrand Russell on Thought

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death....Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.
--Bertrand Russell, 1872-1970

Sunday, March 24, 2002

More 9-11 and language changes

Six months after the events of September 11, the effects continue to show up in the language of high school and college students.
In Times of Terror, Teens Talk the Talk (

Saturday, March 23, 2002


First, we had "True Air", then we had "True Light". Now, we have "True Sound".CDTAUDIO Premium Car Audio Sound Systems

Wednesday, March 20, 2002


"The radio is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the eardrums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babble of distractions, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but usually create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas."
--Aldous Huxley, On Silence, 1946.

Monday, March 18, 2002

The Ultimate in Word Magic

The principles and formulations of general semantics encourage us to remember that "the word is not the thing" and to maintain an awareness of our habit of abstracting meaning from words which by themselves carry no meaning. The story below describes a person for whom words have apparently taken on meanings that none of us can quite imagine. And I suspect he does not know he has abstracted anything.
The Words 'New Jersey' Put Texas City Man Behind Bars

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Checking Facts

If you read this page, you have some kind of Internet access. If you have Internet access, you probably have e-mail. If you have e-mail, you have undoubtedly received one or more (or dozens) of e-mails from well-intended friends containing a warning of some kind, about a dangerous file on your system, an unexpected attack in a mall parking lot, etc etc. I strongly hope that you have discovered some method for determining the relative validity of these warnings, and know to ignore most of them. If not, you might want to surf over to one of the following sites to learn more.

The first will take you to a reply by the Houston Chronicle to a letter from a reader about an alarming article allegedly published in the Chronicle, which she had learned about via an e-mail warning from a friend. This reply does a good job of describing the nature of an Internet hoax.

The subsequent links will take you to sites that operate solely to investigate and debunk Internet hoaxes, virus warnings and urban legends. Bookmark these sites so you can check your facts before sending out a needless alarm to everyone you know.
Houston Chronicle--On the Edge - January 9, 2000
Hoax Busters - the BIG LIST of Internet Hoaxes
The AFU & Urban Legends Archive
Snopes Urban Legends Reference Pages

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Maps and Words

General semantics formulations can turn up in the most unexpected places.
Rose Is Rose

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Fact (1) is Not Fact (2)

The site linked to below, entitled "Useless Facts", uses the term fairly loosely. More importantly for my definition of fact, every item lists a source, but every item I checked listed the same source: "N/A"! Why bother showing the "source" if they don't actually know it?
Useless Facts, Strange Facts, Weird Facts, Bizarre Facts, Interesting Facts!

Monday, March 11, 2002


Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.
-Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

Sunday, March 10, 2002

On the Subject of Authorship

John Biguenet, author of the short-story collection, "The Torturer's Apprentice and the upcoming novel Oyster, from an interview in the Chicago Tribune--

One of our difficulties in fiction--and this extends the argument to the novel as well--is that from the inception of the Western novel in the middle of the 18th Century, one of its tasks was to communicate information. If we read Hemingway, we were reading about places we didn't know, and this was actually a very efficient means of learning about bullfights or about the experience of the first World War. But by 1960, that function had been usurped by various media. Radio began to do it. Large-scale, mass, non-fiction magazines went forth with that as well. And certainly with the introduction of television, there were much more immediate ways to communicate information to large audiences. I don't think fiction has figured out yet how to craft a narrative whose primary purpose is not communication of information.

We tend to vest authority in the non-fiction writer because of the expertise and research that he or she has brought to the project. In the case of earlier novelists, like Mark Twain for example, we all know how he acquired his expertise in the lore of the river, the piloting of steamships. So when we turn to a great novel of the river like ["The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"], we're all aware of his authority to speak about the information that's conveyed in that novel.

But no fiction writers today, with the exception of best-selling writers like John Grisham and the law, or Tom Clancy and military technology, have an acknowledged authority in the information they convey.

In that sense most fiction writers today write without any authority that their audience is willing to acknowledge. I think we see the first glimpse of that with the rise of minimalist fiction in the '80s and late '70s, when the writer basically says the only authority I have is over the self, and so all I can do is create--whether it's a first-person or a third-person--narratives about my own experience, because there my authority can't be questioned. But the effect of that is to admit I have no authority to speak about the world, and that means there are many subjects that have gone unexplored in the last 20 or 30 years in our fiction.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Opinions--Scientific and Political

In the literature of general semantics, we find a lot of encouragement to adopt the scientific method in our daily lives. Scientists look for facts and try to adapt their opinions about the world to accurately reflect the world as they find it. Following the same practice in daily life may give us a better handle on what might happen in a given situation. This in turn might reduce the effect of unexpected shocks that we might have expected if we held more closely to facts.

We might ruin our chances for a career in politics, however, as Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle points out in this vintage article on fact and opinion.
The Problem With New Data

Saturday, February 23, 2002

A Way with Words

Poet Ezra Pound had a relationship with words that few of us can imagine. His "one-image" poem "In a Station of the Metro" demonstrates this unequivocally. But the essay he wrote describing the experience that resulted in this poem demonstrates it even more so.
Ezra Loomis Pound (1885-1972) In a Station of the Metro

Friday, February 22, 2002

Meaning in Numbers

Does a palindrome have "meaning" beyond the standard meaning of its words? Or its numbers, in the case of the recent palindromic date, February 20, 2002. At precisely 8:02 pm on that date, a palindrome "occurred"--we stood at the moment 20:02, 20/02, 2002 (time, date and year.) For some, this had so much significance that they chose to mark the moment by getting married. To others, the moment ticked by without notice. Again I ask myself--where does meaning happen, "out there" or "in here"?
Turn Back Time Tonight

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

When does a word "not exist"?

The Vagina Monologues have toured most parts of the country now and one might think that most people had come to recognize the acceptability of the word. But as this article by Joan Ryan of the SF Chronicle shows, sometimes a word ceases to exist for a short period of time--usually during a TV show...
"Language is so powerful," said Elizabeth Bachen, an assistant professor of psychology at Mills College. "Feeling comfortable with the word could very well translate into feeling comfortable with your body. How can we talk about what gives us pleasure if we can't even say the word?"
A 6-letter, 4-letter word

Monday, February 18, 2002

The Entropy of Languages

The story at the end of this entry may surprise you. Some readers might expect the term "entropy of a language" to relate somehow to its decline. In fact, the article describes a computer-generated lineage of languages that closely approximates the Indo-European language family tree. And the method the computer used to develop this lineage, analyzing the "relative entropy of two languages" will most certainly surprise you too! | Computers and language

Tuesday, February 12, 2002


"The very best philosophy is apodictic*. It proceeds slowly, carefully, skeptically, via demonstration and argument, until suddenly something new comes to light."
--Peter Marin, Good Will Hunting; Existentialists and Mystics, The Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 1998.
*Note--apodictic (ap-uh-DIK-tik) adjective, Demonstrably true.
[From Latin apodicticus, from Greek apodeiktikos, from apodeiknynai (to demonstrate), from apo- + deiknynai (to show).]

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
-Henry Brooks Adams, historian (1838-1918)

Sunday, February 10, 2002

In His Humble Opinion

SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll takes on amateur opinion makers in his article of January 21, 2002. He doesn't object to amateurs having opinions, just to their making them public. Leave it to the professionals, says Jon. As usual with Jon's columns, however, in the midst of his wry humor, he makes very interesting points about communication and thinking.
Opinion making is dangerous work.

Saturday, January 26, 2002

True-----------1/2 True-----------False

Advertisers have always manipulated language to sell products. In this advertising campaign for a new lightbulb, GE has made a claim that I find difficult to accept--this new light bulb "reveals true light". I object to this not just for the standard reason ("don't believe everything you read") but even more so from a general semantics point of view. If they had claimed that their bulb delivers a light that people find more comfortable, more agreeable, a light that makes things look nice, I would not have objected. But "true light"--true for whom and in what sense? Read the advertising fluff and judge for yourself:
GE Lighting Reveals A Light That Will Change The Way People See Their World

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

What Color is Your Universe?

Astronomers have worked out the color of the Universe � and the calculated shade lies between aquamarine and a pale turquoise. Note that this does not describe any particular star or dust cloud or planet in any particular quadrant of the Universe. It happens that the large number of old red giant stars and hot new blue stars averages out to a frequency just on the green side of turquoise.

Does this "mean" our "universe is turquoise"? For practical purposes, it means very little. For theoretical purposes, it means that if you had an eye large enough to see large swaths of the universe, you might get the impression of turquoise. As so often seems to happen, science makes one statement and the popular press turns it into a whole different message.
Space News 11/01/2002 What colour is the Universe?

Tuesday, January 15, 2002


A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.
-Charles Peguy, poet and essayist (1873-1914)

Monday, January 07, 2002

Language as Obfuscation

Euphemism--while the word comes from the Greek for "good speaking," these days it more often refers to a word or phrase intended to soften reality, cover up something embarrassing or divert attention from the "reality" of a situation. Indeed, Oxford College of Emory University's Dr. Kent Linville, referred to euphemisms as "linguistic fig leaves." The following euphemisms appeared in email from readers of the A Word A Day service, a.k.a AWAD. The word "euphemism" had figured in a message the previous week, and it triggered quite a flood of "me too" messages about favorite euphemisms.

From the "A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage" by Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957: "The opposite of euphemism is dysphemism. If it is plain talk to call a spade a spade and a euphemism to call it a delving instrument, it is a dysphemism to call it a bloody shovel."

In Edward Albee's play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" when George wants Martha to help their guest Honey to the bathroom, he says "Show her where we keep the euphemism."

How about "urban outdoorsman" for a homeless person, "yesterday's fresh" for day-old pastries, or "vintage" or the even better "previously new" for used or old.

In some legal circles, it is said that when a person dies, their estate "matures". Worse yet, emergency medical technicians use the acronym ART for such people, indicating that the person is "Assuming Room Temperature"!

At Three Mile Island, they apparently had an "unscheduled energetic disassembly" not an "explosion".