Name the Beasts

A powerful method of simplifying is to make up "handles" for new problems; that is, to create a nomenclature. Human beings are the world champions at doing this—inventing language. In fact, every individual human being has the capacity to create language.

An experiment showed that people will invent terminology spontaneously. Two people were placed in separate rooms where they could not see each other but could communicate via intercom. Each subject was given a sheet of paper with sixteen pictures on it, arranged in a four by four grid. The same pictures appeared on both sheets, but they appeared in different boxes on the grid. (For example, the picture in the upper right-hand corner of one person's sheet was located in a different place on the other person's sheet.)

The pictures were simple modern art sketches that had no recognizable objects in them: squiggly lines, pointed star shapes, contorted geometric shapes.

The subjects were asked to match up the pictures on the sheets with each other by talking over the intercom. Typically, the subjects started out using a lengthy descriptive phrase, "Looks like squiggly lines—waves on a beach." Later the phrase was shortened to "squiggly lines." Finally the abbreviated form, "squiggle," appeared and was quickly adopted for the remainder of the discussion.

How easy and natural it is for human beings to invent terminology!

Far simpler than using lengthy descriptions.

Of course, rocket scientists have had to invent novel terms for the new technologies they were dealing with. They took it a step further with their ubiquitous use of acronyms. So besides truncated terms like "capcom" for capsule communicator and "retro" for retro-fire engineer, we have "FIDO" for flight dynamics officer and "NASA" for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

New words, new terminologies, new problems. We use words to categorize, to classify, to put things in order. In our increasingly complex world, things can seem chaotic and random at times. Human beings create order out of chaos by naming things to "get a handle on it." Our use of language is our greatest survival skill.

Because of the power of language, great care must be exercised in its use. Merely labeling something does not mean we understand it. We can misuse language in many ways. We can oversimplify, misconstrue, stereotype, malign, and otherwise misspeak. We have to be careful how we name things—we must endeavor to be precise.

A beautiful example of losing sight of precision in language was described in an article in Scientific American about a word game called "Tower of Babel." In this game, you start with a word and look up a synonym in a thesaurus. Let's say we start with "disrespect" and find "disregard." Next we look for a synonym of disregard and find "allow." In a few steps, we can often find a word that is the opposite—an antonym—for the first word. Here is my example:

disrespect disregard allow approve commend praise revere respect

I was astounded by the idea. I had always loosely assumed that synonyms were equal like the symbols in an equation. If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. Carried to an extreme, A equals Z. But the "Tower of Babel" proved this assumption to be incor-

Chapter 31 Name the Beasts rect. (Be careful what you assume.) Synonyms are more like the colors of the rainbow, which exist on a continuous spectrum from red to violet. (See A. K. Dewdney's description of Ron Hardin's game in "Word ladders and a tower of Babel lead to computational heights defying assault" in the August 1987 issue of Scientific American. Hardin unearthed many interesting short chains such as: acceptable ^ so-so ^ ordinary ^ inferior ^ rotten ^ unacceptable.)

We should choose judiciously from this spectrum of words (this slippery slope of synonyms) and endeavor to avoid slanting our choice to either side. We need to watch our language when naming the beasts.

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