Lonely Words

5:05 pm Personal, Philosophy, Religion

Here’s something I’ll bet you never considered before:

We have a lot of words in common usage, and I mean a LOT of them, a whole specialized vocabulary, that refers to things that don’t actually exist.

So there’s a word for the thing, but no thing for the word.

Fairy. Werewolf. Ghost. Bigfoot. Vampire. Channeling. Telepathy. Telekinesis. Clairvoyance. Goblin. Teleportation. Afterlife. Leprechaun. Zombie. Valhalla. Hell. God.

There are multi-word terms in the same vein: Spirit guide. Trance medium. Guardian angel. Mutant powers.

Knowing this, and knowing that there was a time when I DIDN’T know it, I think that’s a fairly profound problem.

I have this concept I tinkered up some years back, something I call “mental access time.”

It’s the time you have, in every 24 hour period, for thinking and problem solving. I like to think of it as the time you actually DO spend thinking. I relate it loosely to wisdom, which I define as … oh, the aggregate body of useful conclusions to which you’ve come.

To discover these wisdom-bits, you have to access the abilities of your own brain to think deeply and long about the subject at hand. Why some people can take a compliment as a veiled insult (“What do you mean, you like my hair this way? Are you saying you didn’t like it before?). How, if you’re a man, a few ounces of tissue can control your behavior so profoundly, and over a span of decades. Or even: What evolutionary purpose that bright red flesh-thingie on top of a rooster’s head serves.

If you stay busy with other types of activity — say talking, or sending Tweets, or reading red hot romance novels, or eating lunch with friends, or cooking and watching TV at the same time, or having sex, or driving in heavy traffic, or feeling a little sleepy  after eating, or downing a couple of drinks after dinner, or walking around with your headphones on all the time, or working out at the gym, or any of ten thousand other things that could occupy large parts of your consciousness in ways that preclude the subtle, delicate mentation that rational introspection requires …

Well, you just don’t have the mental access time for this other thing. Your conscious mind focuses on these busy-busy things, to the exclusion of all others, and you end up with fewer useful conclusions about life.

If I spend ten hours a year thinking deeply about stuff, but you spend a thousand, at the end of the year you probably understand quite a lot of things I don’t.

The fact that every person reading this is probably familiar with the above list of words-without-things — so much so that I just know someone is going to chime in with a comment insisting that one or more of these things does exist (or that I can’t PROVE that they don’t, as if that means something) — implies that they occupy quite a lot of our thinking.

Certainly some of that occupancy takes up space that might be better used in other ways. In the statistical universe of all human mental activity, these words elbow aside a lot of more useful words and thoughts. Like a digital bug that slows the speed of our Internet connection, they steal some of our mental access time.

Which means they really do, really have, cost us something. And I suspect the price has been higher than any of us realizes.

I get it that some words-without-things — how about I call them “nullwords”? — are useful as metaphors: “She walked around like a zombie after finding out she’d lost the play’s lead role.”

But even that worries me, because, well, you can make metaphors out of anything; why waste time making metaphors out of non-things? It’s like saying “He’s as strong as a blarfazzle.” (And yes, I know the two previous examples are similes rather than, strictly speaking, metaphors.)

More than that, though, it seems to me that using nullwords, even if they’re useful as raw materials for metaphorizing, has one very large side effect: They reinforce fake concepts in the mind of the reader/listener.

If everyone you know refers to angels all your life — “My big brother is like my own private guardian angel!” — even if you decide you don’t believe in them, angels-as-a-concept has become a basic part of your thought processes.

Additionally, as I implied a few paragraphs back, just having a word for a thing makes it arguable. If I talk about the blarfazzle, there is immediately a yes-or-no dichotomy of possibility in your head. You have to look into the matter, then take some sort of active stand in your head to deny that blarfazzles exist. Alternatively, some of us might puckishly insist that they DO.

The problem is that a lot of us never get as far as questioning. We hear the word and instantly accept that the thing exists.

Even scientists feed the confusion. There’s a book out there with the annoying (to me, an atheist) title “The God Particle.” The title turned me off enough that I never wanted to read the book, but I doubt the gist of it is that there’s a subatomic particle that serves as — or proves the existence of — a god. Yet someone on the cusp of the question of whether or not gods exist could be swayed by the apparent support of the idea by a prominent physicist. (I imagine a guy browsing in the bookstore, coming across the book title and saying “Oh, look, even scientists believe in God. I guess it’s good that I do too.”)

In the end, I don’t think I’m really saying I wish nullwords didn’t exist.

What I am saying is that it was an epiphany to me, a writer who cares a lot about language, that some words are null sets, describing things that don’t actually exist.

I’m also saying that, as a person who lives in this world, in a society full of confusion about what’s real and what’s not, that I want everybody else in my society to know it.

There really are words for things that absolutely do not exist. Even very old words, words burned deeply into our language and culture, words that everybody knows and accepts, don’t necessary describe real things.

You shouldn’t believe in a thing just because there’s a word for it. Lacking a good handbook to the real and unreal — even dictionaries aren’t always helpful — it’s up to each of us to find out which words represent real things, and which are nullwords.

And just FYI: There are no such things as fairies. Or werewolves. Or even …

4 Responses
  1. dana Claycomb :

    Date: May 17, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Cool idea! In fact, I think the time one spends in mental access time determines who we are more than culture or upbringing.

  2. Malcolm Lockridge :

    Date: May 20, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    Here’s Mal, chiming in with the predicted comment. Overall, as usual, you make a good and valid point. But just FYI, telepathy DOES exist. I personally know this in the same way as you know the sky is blue : I experience it. It does not need to be proven, and no amount of assertion by anyone can disprove it. Same goes for precognition. (I’m not so sure about zombies and werewolves ) So MY good and valid point is that the fact that you do not know of or do not experience something is no proof it does not exist. And, just possibly, these words were invented because someone, somewhere, some time, actually did need them – to describe the real world HE perceived. Or, as JBS Haldane famously remarked, “The universe is not only queeerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we CAN suppose.”

  3. Malcolm Lockridge :

    Date: May 20, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    There was supposed to be a “grin” after zombies and werewolves. I can only suppose that the wee folk stole it. grin.

  4. David Harmon :

    Date: June 23, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    Sorry dude, I think you’re getting a bit carried away with your “discovery of atheism”. These are words without material referents — but even so, the concepts they address are very old and widespread. That’s not because “Until the Modern Age People Didn’t Know Any Better”, either — such constructs arise repeatedly and with startling consistency, from the structure of the human mind, and the experiences common to each human life.

    To give my own favorite example, many cultures have legends of giants, often relegated to the misty past: “In olden days, there were giants in the Earth” . Myth and fable give giants (and their cousins ogres) a manifold nature — sometimes helpful, sometimes hostile. Sometimes they can be tricked or cajoled, sometimes they just have to be avoided. So, where do these giants come from? Certainly, fossil bones gave ideas to some folks, and there are a few human “giants” ranging up to eight feet or so… yet, those stories are everywhere!

    But consider… every one of us remembers a time when the world was ruled by folk far larger and stronger than ourselves. With mysterious powers and varied, often capricious behavior, these beings could rescue us from disaster or explode into terrifying wrath. We called them “grown-ups”…..

    Likewise, the idea of “God” comes not just from experiences of transcendence, but also from elaboration of human dominance hierarchies, driven by social needs.

    And again, those classic “fairy” types have a most complex and most interesting pedigree — see David Brin on the link between fairies and “aliens”, then mix in “vanished” and misplaced objects around the house, mysterious noises and motions in the forest, and so on. Later versions brought in elements of human relationships — the unapproachable beauty, the trickster child, the capriciousness of the powerful. (Full disclosure: I myself spent a couple of years “glamoured” by a woman who could reasonably have passed for a elf, or at least a changeling. She described herself merely as a witch….)

    In like manner, every one of those terms you cite traces back to some combination of universal experience, and “commonplace excursions” in our mental states. In short, these words are not going to go away simply because we’ve “learned better”. Those vampires and fairies, giants and angels, they’re all around us… and also, they are within us.

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