The Games We Play

Words carry meaning. Except when we don’t want them to. But does that stop them from carrying meaning or does it just impose an external mandate on others to appropriately filter the understood meanings of words in a manner the sender deems worthy at a fixed point in time? It’s an interesting conundrum. All of us would like to be taken seriously and words are one of the main mechanisms used to convey our intent. And words are powerful. We’ve all used the phrase “sticks and stones” to ward off bullies’ taunts and jeers. But in reality, we know words can make a lasting impact on the recipient dependent on how they choose to receive them. So, there seems to be some responsibility on both the sender and the receiver.

First the sender. The sender’s responsibility is to use the best words available to convey meaning. It seems appropriate, if this is the goal, to use words with a widely-understood meaning. For example, if a person wanted a red balloon, they wouldn’t say they’d like a green one. It’s common knowledge that red is assigned to a specific hue that’s common to everyone (unless impaired) and green assigned to another. The person requesting the balloon would be slightly to moderately bothered (depending upon temperament and circumstance) if they were to receive one color balloon when asking for another.

In a similar manner, when a person is upset and uses “foul” language in order to convey their discontent, they’d be put off if the person responded by laughing in their face like they’d told a hysterical joke. They meant to convey a specific meaning and it was taken otherwise and it would be logical for them to be confused and even angered over having their words misinterpreted. In addition, foul language is labeled “foul” for a reason. It isn’t called “fair” because it’s known and intended to be deviant and “other”. The (sometimes unintended) consequence is that the person communicating this deviant language becomes associated with their words and also is known as deviant.

So, words and their meaning become a two-edged sword. A person using deviant language may not wish to be seen as deviant. So, rather than bending to the standard, the person seeks to change the standard. But once the standard has been changed, words have lost their meaning. What words can now be used to express deviance? It’s as hard to make a word deviant as it is to remove it from the deviant category. And just because a word is commonly used doesn’t change the common understanding. Even if the green balloon were to be widely called red, it wouldn’t make it so. It would just make everyone who adhered to the convention, collectively insane. In the same way, if foul language were to become standard, it wouldn’t make everyone fair. We’d just all be deluded and foul together.

Once the sender’s responsibility is settled, the recipient’s part should be more simple. If the sender is to communicate using widely-understood vernacular, the recipient should easily be able to interpret the words as communicated. The unique responsibility of the recipient is to not assign meaning to words beyond their common understanding. And that’s another trick altogether. Of course, we have to remove the factors of lying and sarcasm from the equation. But if we were able to take people at their word, we’d live in a better world. Not that words can’t be harsh but at least we’d know where we stand.

There seems to be a lot of interest in words nowadays; more so than I can remember. It seems obvious that there’s a largely-represented desire to shift standards. The question becomes: Is there as much of a willingness to accept the consequences?

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