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Verbal Energy

The words that help us all think better

Has the trickling down to the larger public of technical terms such as ‘circular argument’ or ‘cost-benefit analysis’ helped people think better?

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Discussing neologisms in his new book, “The Sense of Style,” Harvard language scientist Steven Pinker gets at a sensitive point: People may not like them because they don’t like where they come from.

He writes, “Many people are irritated by buzzwords from the cubicle farm, such as drill down, grow the company, new paradigm, proactive, and synergies. They also bristle at psychobabble from the encounter group and therapy couch, such as conflicted, dysfunctional, empower, facilitate, quality time....”

One’s use, or not, of such words is a “matter of taste,” Professor Pinker says. But, he adds, they “earn a place in the language by making it easy to express concepts that would otherwise require tedious circumlocutions.” 

He lists examples: Probability cloud comes from the world of particle physics. Perfect storm is a rare example of a durable coinage by a single identifiable individual – Sebastian Junger, author of a book on the 1991 Halloween nor’easter. His term caught on so well that it topped Lake Superior State University’s “2008 List of Banished Words” – on grounds of overuse.

Pinker lists one of my favorites as well: sock puppet. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a simple puppet made from a sock that is fitted over and moved by the hand and fingers; (also fig.) a person whose actions are controlled by another; a minion.” 

OED’s usage examples include an ad for the actual sock puppet with which I played as a child – but it has found new life in the age of the Internet, referring to the online interlocutors people invent as sparring partners or favorable “reviewers” of their own work. Sock puppet thus bridges the worlds of digital (electronic) and hands-on experience. 

Pinker also makes this intriguing point: Neologisms make it easier to think. “The philosopher James Flynn, who discovered that IQ scores rose by three points a decade throughout the twentieth century, attributes part of the rise to the trickling down of technical ideas from academia and technology into the everyday thinking of laypeople.” Among the terms Pinker cites that have transferred to the larger public are circular argument, cost-benefit analysis, percentage, and tradeoff.

In a 2011 article, The Week magazine explained that Professor Flynn had found that IQ really reflects the extent to which a person has adopted a scientific rather than a concrete or utilitarian worldview.

 “‘If you asked a person in 1900 what a dog and rabbit had in common, they would say you could use a dog to hunt rabbits,’ he said. ‘Today you would say they both are mammals.’ The second answer is worth two points on standard IQ tests; the first, though hardly an invalid response, yields zero points.”

One might argue that if IQ scores are rising, it’s because humans are simply getting better at taking tests. 

But I like the idea that words are tools for thinking – widely available, and free of charge.

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