Words

Words are interesting. We live in an age where words, especially in written form, are getting more and more powerful. You can get into trouble for things you wrote decades ago which makes you wonder why we keep writing, honestly.

Words evolve, they lose and gain meaning over time which makes them a particularly interesting topic.

I was thinking about this a few days ago, in the context of a discussion about minimalism. But there are obviously way more powerful examples of this phenomenon going on in the public discourse around the topic of sex and gender.

Now, I am not going to touch that subject because 1) I claim no expertise on the subject and 2) I am—for the most part—not crazy, and I don’t want to touch a topic like that publicly. If you want my opinion feel free to ask it privately.

I wrote about minimalism in the past and every time I discuss the topic with someone I’m surprised by how long it takes me to describe what that word means to me. Words should help us create more clarity while in this context the word "minimalism" is doing the exact opposite.

And it's as a result of this confusion that people usually come up with neologisms. You need words to express concepts and sometimes the existing ones don't quite do it for you. So you invent new words.

Does that really help though? Let's say I decide that the term minimalist doesn't really fit me. And let's say I decide to start calling myself a manuist (very catchy, I know). Does that help? You have no idea what that term means so I need to provide a definition. That's easy enough to do. But who controls that definition? No one. Because no one controls languages. In a year we could be back at square one.

I'll give you one more example and I'm going to pick a term that is totally uncontroversial (yes that is sarcasm). Let's imagine I say to you that I am a feminist. What does that tell you about me really? I'd argue it says almost nothing. I grew up in a time and a place where that word used to mean something while now that word—at least from what I can see—has assumed a very different connotation.

The only way for you to actually know what I believe in and what my position is is to engage in a conversation with me. And that's why, in a way, I both hate and love words that have very broad definitions. Yes, they can be painfully unhelpful sometimes but, at the same time, they can be conversation starters.

What does it mean for you to be a minimalist? What does it mean for you to be a feminist? What does it mean for you to be insert your preferred politically charged word here? Those are very interesting questions you can ask someone if you have an open mind and are curious about what other people really believe in.

Words can be misleading and more often than not, it takes time and effort to really understand what someone was trying to communicate in that stupid 200 characters tweet.