Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Noun--Mightier than the Sword?

Whatever you may feel about the issues between Israelis and Arabs, I believe you will find this article from the Jerusalem Post interesting. The author, Lewis Glinert, discusses the subtle but powerful connotations that words carry and how the choice of one term over another can draw listeners opinion in a particular direction without them necessarily perceiving the effect.

Of course, every word uttered creates the possibility for misunderstanding, or worse still, understanding of only what the speaker wishes to reveal. Since, as we in the gs world contend, words don't "carry" meaning but rather trigger it in the listener, one can never guarantee that the "same" meaning will occur to the listener as to the speaker. Trying to maintain awareness of the possible problems can help, but I suggest that we must do more if we want to improve our ability to withstand efforts to influence our opinions.

Recently I started reading George Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By". Lakoff identifies a number of fundamental language concepts that color everyday language and yet remain unknown or unacknowledged by most speakers. Even more striking to me, Lakoff verbalizes these metaphors in the simplest of language--"Better is UP" "Less is DOWN" "Argument is WAR" etc etc. These nearly universal metaphors (at least within a given culture) subtly but inexorably determine which words "work" and which fail to appeal. For example, one cannot expect much success with a phrase like "Small is beautiful" when talking about growth and progress. This contradicts our unspoken metaphor that "More is UP" plus "Better is UP".

With this new perspective in mind, we can evaluate both the arguments others present and the words they choose to express their arguments. This may give us some better chance at reacting rationally rather than reflexively.

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