Everyday entropy: babel

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Termite mound

Any system of belief, understanding or communication will degenerate into nonsense over time, either due to duplication-loss or disuse.  Either way, it will lose its connection to physical phenomena.

The average person can manage a working vocabulary of about 10,000 words that they can use in conversation, with 30,000 representing an exceptional tally.  They may understand 30-80,000, but the OED has over a million entries.  Where do they all go?  What is the difference between the words people use, the words they can understand, and an entry in the OED?

For one thing, most of the entries in the OED aren’t really words, in the sense that even someone who knows them wouldn’t use them in ordinary conversation.  A learned person might write them down if they knew their audience were made up of the sort of people who like looking things up in the dictionary, but, and this is the big thing, they would never use these words as metaphors, metonyms or analogues.  These words are semantic shortcuts, unique identifiers for well-defined ideas or concepts that can be looked up in books.  They could just as easily be numbers or bar codes that you could enter into a smartphone to get the full details.  These semantic shortcuts make writing easier, and once you’ve looked them up, they make reading easier because you don’t need a full definition every time the concept is reused.

But words are not like this.  Words are not limited by their definitions.  They are open to metaphorical application and reinterpretation in any context.  If you think of energy as a word – the way you can use it to describe an emotion, a musical tone, a relationship, a person’s mind, body or spirit – you can use it in any context and be confident that your audience will take some meaning from it.  That meaning may be totally different from what you meant, but there will be communication.  Poem is a word; sonnet is a shortcut.  Explosive is a word; accelerant is a shortcut.  Work is a word; deliverable is a shortcut.  It isn’t wrong to use a semantic shortcuts for a well-defined class of things, but they obstruct cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural communication.  The more shortcuts you know, the less adept you become at using words.  The advantage of taking the time to use words is that they open up communication to personal interpretation, so that your statements can be meaningful outside of your professional or social clique.

Energy is a word, entropy is just a semantic shortcut.  If I could do one thing here, I would let entropy be a word.  Entropy accompanies energy through all its metaphorical transformations.  No matter how fanciful or aspirational our use of energy, there is no way to understand it without understanding entropy.  But I also understand that a language can only have so many words.  Words can only survive if they are in constant use, and the temptation to use shortcuts, especially among the educated, makes it that much harder to save words from becoming anachronisms.  Every shortcut disrupts the daily practice of words, and in the end, the tower of babel will crumble when there are not enough words left to hold the shortcuts together.

There is so much knowledge in every field now that even people working in related fields might be utterly ignorant of one another’s basic understanding.  You can have an accomplished surgeon and medical researcher who is broadly ignorant of immunology or epidemiology.  Ecology might well be as foreign as Greek history to a nuclear physicist or organic chemist, let alone an accountant.  The point is that breaking down silos isn’t humanly possible.  Within a lifetime, a person couldn’t possibly gain an understanding of enough fields of study to call themselves generally well educated in arts and sciences.  An accomplished linguist doesn’t have the time, let alone the mental capacity, to also understand astrophysics, food science and jazz guitar.  We have fictional characters who manage to do everything easily, like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House, but in real life, these people hoard knowledge in a few silos while maintaining a chauvinistic ignorance about everything else, viewing everything through one of their chosen fields.  Ultimately, it is the growing ignorance of basic knowledge that will kill us.  In our search for novelty, we will drown in our own untreated sewage or find ourselves overrun by the slaves we forgot we had.

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