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Part II


Commentary on the birth of words,
and the impact of words on our world


Dorian Scott Cole


Copyright © 1997 - 2001 By Dorian Scott Cole


Distribution Notice: This book is not public domain and may not be distributed in any form in any media, including print or electronic, and may not be included in any collections for distribution in any media. Individual readers may make a printed copy for personal use as long as the copyright notice remains on the work.






Part I

1   Privies and Other Embarrassing Words
2   How Words Take on Meaning
3   English Is Confusing Even as a First Language!
4   Referents: Signifiers and Symbols

Part II

5   It's Not Easy Feeling Green
6   Context, Usage, and Categorization

Part III

7   Words Can Poison You
8   Experiential Theory of Words
       Computer Relationship Systems
Excursus I:  Things Parents Can't Have
9   Metaphysical Theory of Words

Part IV

10   Interpretation
Excursus II:  Creating Classifications and Concepts
Flatus & Inflatus (Gas & Inspiration)




Your Language Is from What World?

Some people can speak all night without anyone understanding a word, and the dictionary is no help, adding another dimension to the Alice In Wonderland experience.




Chapter 5

It's Not Easy Feeling Green

- A. Frog

I interviewed a frog in a bog,
one perched on a log in the fog,
he replied like an og on a nog,
with a belch like a dog drinking grog,
"It's not easy feeling green."
           - Dorian Scott Cole

I didn't know what some of the strange words in this poem meant. I probably won't remember tomorrow. This chapter is about strange words. Not about these strange words in particular, but about other strange words, such as periwinkle.

I opened my bedroom closet one spring and pulled all of my summer clothes to the front. All of my shirts were green. Do I see a pattern here? Would people wonder if I ever changed clothes. I wondered, if I left them on the hangers for a while, would they ripen?

One of the most difficult tasks in speaking in public is speaking to a group of women. They notice what you wear. A few years ago I traveled to Denver to speak to the local chapter of Women In Film. The nice woman who picked me up at the airport immediately said, "You're wearing a periwinkle." I cowered in the corner of the car, feeling green. I had no idea what a periwinkle was, or what sin I had committed. Either they wouldn't let me speak, or I would have to change clothes first.

Finally I worked up the courage to ask someone. "What is a periwinkle?" I looked straight ahead as she responded - I didn't want to receive that "boy, are you ever dumb" look. "It's a color that changes color when you're in different light," she replied. I'm a guy. If the colors don't make me puke, then they're probably OK. More in-depth judgments than this, I leave to my wife. I don't check myself under fluorescent lights, and then under incandescent to see if my aqua becomes blue or green. I just... lean toward green.

It isn't easy feeling green - you might become a chameleon, or camouflaged, or a periwinkle. Like invisible blue, you might get in front of a camera wearing green and find out that you blend into the green forest background. Could happen to a frog.

Thinking about this later, I wasn't certain if this person's definition was correct, and where the word came from. So just what is a periwinkle?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary:

Any of several small, often edible marine snails, especially of the genus Littorina, having thick, cone-shaped, whorled shells.  2. The shell of any of the periwinkles. [Middle English *periwinkle, probably alteration (influenced by pervinkle, periwinkle (plant)). See periwinkle2, of Old English pėnewincle : Latin pėna, mussel (from Greek pinę) + Old English -wincel, snail shell.]

The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright Š 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.

A whorled shell? Probably not, because the periwinkle snail shells are single color.

I turned to definition 2:

Any of several shrubby, trailing, evergreen plants of the genus Vinca, especially V. minor, having glossy, dark green, opposite leaves and flowers with a blue, funnel-shaped corolla. Also called myrtle. 2. Any of several erect herbs of the genus Catharanthus, especially C. roseus, having flowers with a rose-pink or white salverform corolla and a closed throat. [Middle English pervinkle, diminutive of pervinke, from Old English pervince, from Latin (vinca) pervinca, from pervincėre, to wind about.]

Dark green and blue leaves? The dictionary describes plants that can be any of several different colors. But this doesn't seem to me to get to the heart of this use of the word periwinkle. I checked my infamous shirt - the one I wore that day. It was green. It not only changes color in different lights, it also has splotches of gray-green peppered through it.

Why would someone use the word periwinkle to describe a shirt that changes color, depending on the light? I checked Encyclopedia Americana. Periwinkles have opposite leaves. Does this mean that the shade on the underside is different from the top? Another possibility, one of the several varieties of periwinkle plants has a variegated leaf. Yes, my shirt is kind of variegated with the gray-green colors peppered over the green.

I checked with Encyclopedia Britannica - I learned that one species of periwinkle produces an effective cancer fighting agent (for leukemia), and that a virus can attack the periwinkle plant and turn the petals a greenish color. Was this color change the meaning that the person intended?

I could try to find a dictionary for the fabric industry. Where would I find one? My fabric-oriented wife says, "Periwinkle blue is a common term." This could get very involved. I balked at searching further - I would not visit the horticulture environs of the local university - I have visited horticulture research labs hundreds of times and still don't know a thing about plants.

So I don't know what gave birth to the word. The word periwinkle could reflect many different aspects of the periwinkle plant. I will just continue to wear periwinkles and figure that I can get by with it. I probably won't even know I am wearing one - guys can usually be forgiven this.

This slightly humorous story is one illustration of the way our words evolve and take on new meanings in our world. We borrow or create new words to express something about our world, such as a different way of thinking, a new idea, a new meaning, a new use, a new pattern in our environment...

Sometimes the new word is limited to our own inner circle, such as the fabric or fashion industry. We know what we mean by the word, and after it becomes familiar to us, we think everyone knows. But do they?

Sometimes the word does go "prime-time," and goes into widespread use. (The word prime-time is itself another example of an evolving word.) Others pick up the new word and give it a modified meaning that works for them. For a long time, probably none of us know what a new word really means. Eventually prime-time new words lodge in the dictionary and acquire usage definitions. Often the process works well, but sometimes the process just leaves us clueless.

- Clueless in fashion




Can't We All just Speak in Categories?

If we just knew what category a word was in, we could understand. Context helps determine category. On the other hand, usage hinders categorization.




Chapter 6

Context, Usage, and Categorization


Context is the way in which a word is conceptualized within a sentence - not by the listener, and not necessarily by the speaker, but by the words that accompany a word. Other words create the "setting" in which a word is used, and the setting imposes meaning on a word. For example, the following sentences impose very different meanings on the word moon:

"The moon shone brilliantly over the horizon."

"Johnny will moon everyone at the end of the show."

Just as the speaker may conceptualize a word one way and the hearer another, the sentence itself imposes a concept on the word.


Word usage not only determines how a word becomes defined in the dictionary, usage is a continuum that continually migrates word meanings to altered and new meanings through misuse (misperceptions of meaning) and metaphor. Everyone who uses a word may not understand the word in the same way. Jump into any conversation and ask for a definition of a word recently used, and you will get multiple meanings.

For example, if everyone on the East Coast uses the word logoplastycism to mean, "to take words and combine them into one new word," and people on the West Coast hear the word without a definition and come to believe it means, "to extract individual letters into a new word," then the word has gained a new definition through misperception and usage. If people in the Midwest begin thinking of logoplastycism as an eloquent game, using the word metaphorically to mean in an abstract sense, "Origami with words," and then they use it repeatedly in that way, as a result through metaphor and usage the word acquires yet another definition.

Words also migrate into other areas. For example, as science and technology present us with new things, everyday words begin to describe these new things. For example, the word window now describes a window on your computer - that is, the visual display of an application.

So while a word may acquire a definition, the word is not static. It is a living thing which grows with the experience of a culture. It participates in the culture's experience as a vehicle for meaning. It not only transfers the original meaning from person to person through usage based on experience, it is the basis for metaphors for new abstract meaning to describe new experience, and is the basis for meaning migration to describe new things through experience that is familiar (patterns).


Have you ever had trouble finding your reading glasses, and then realize you misplaced them on top of your head? If you think it is difficult to find misplaced glasses, try finding glasses in the Yellow Pages. You won't find them under glasses. Look up eye glasses and you only get a referent to optical goods. Optical goods lists all kinds of places where you can get glasses, contacts, and eye exams. But if you are actually wanting an eye exam, you may be misled by the limited number of entries in this section.

If you look up optometrist because you want an eye exam, you will find many entries, but not be referred to optical goods, even though both categories cover roughly the same territory. It is often faster to call 411 than to stumble through the sometimes perplexing way in which the Yellow Pages creators have chosen to categorize things.

Because people classify things according to their experience, categorization fails as a way to create common categories by which people can find things. At best categorization is done by "logic" or by tabulating popular choices which in turn are individually dictated by experiences that are common to many. Regardless of which category you put something in, many people won't be able to find it. Their experience - their way of thinking - is different. Radio means "entertaining music" to one while to another it means "electronic equipment and electromagnetic waves."

The problem with classification is demonstrated very well in computer help-file design. Computer help files, whether printed or online, are supposed to provide a usable source of information about programs. When users search through the contents, they should be able to find the information they need quickly. But tables of contents are often created for leading people through a step by step introductory approach. Is this what the user wants or is it the experts perception of what the TOC should do?

When a program user arrives at the contents with a technical question, the table may have several classifications that are candidates for providing answers, with no clear indication which is the right one. If a user can't quickly find the information, he gets frustrated, and the help-file becomes a tool of torture which makes him dissatisfied with the application.

Indexes are more helpful, but present the problem of endless lists, and even indexes require some classification. The Find function is more helpful, but even this often lists relevant and irrelevant topics together, and sometimes under multiple obscure classifications.

Context sensitive help is even more helpful, since it relates directly to the task at hand, but it often doesn't give an overview so that the user can understand what he needs to do. And context sensitive help may not be available at the time the question arises. For example if the user needs to change a setting to make the program work properly, but has no idea where to go to do that, context sensitive help is no help.

Add to these the problem that help files are written by those with expert experience for those with minimal experience. Those with minimal experience can only guess at what the experts know and how they classify things. To make it all even more vexing, everyone has a different favored route to finding information in a help file: contents, index, find. There is no right place for everyone.

The enormity of the problem with finding information is demonstrated by the Internet. Internet search engines scan all available Web pages for information and record referential information within their systems. When a visitor searches on a word or words, the search engine quickly looks at its own references and provides those millions of possible referents to Web pages, ordered by what the search engine believes is the most relevant.

For the search engine, radio means every reference to radio - it has no idea whether you mean electromagnetic waves or entertainment. Even if you search for the pair of words radio waves, it doesn't know if you mean a rock group, a cultural symbol, or an electromagnetic disturbance.

The search engine doesn't know a number of things that it should know, about the user's word meaning and classification, to be effective at doing the search. It doesn't have a category in which to limit the search, or a word definition, nor does it know the context in which the word is being used, or the context of the referent Web pages.

Just as importantly, the search engine doesn't have a brain packed with experience. Artificial intelligence currently can infer relevance from word associations (a surface reflection of context) and even word prevalence, but it can't infer relevance from experience. Because of this, natural language query applications often give bizarre results that make them look inept and useless. With the amount of information on the Internet doubling every couple of years, the problem is growing rapidly.

Stevan Harnad has addressed this issue, with a possible resolution through grounding symbols in sensorimotor experience, in his 2002 paper, Symbol grounding and the origin of language

What might work, however, is relevance engines that create "ontologies" that show relationships between words. In a sense, this classifies words - not by human categorization, but independently of individual differences and in such a way that the word is located through its relationships with other words. How these word relationships are defined, and I believe the ultimate success of the system, depends on the theoretical approach used as a basis for the system. Language relationships and experiential relationships may be different things.

The next evolution in search technology could involve asking for a category of experience to indicate word meaning, however this would require that search indexes of collected material also be categorized by categories of experience.1




Chapter 6 Footnotes

1. More on classification: Creating Classifications and Concepts, by D. Scott Cole


CONTENTS | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV


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