Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Lion’s Share of Meaning

A Lion RoarsNever trust a hungry lion. Photo source: Richard Wiseman Blog

Today’s post is the text of a speech I delivered at Toastmasters today. I hope you enjoy it.

A word can mean so many things – anything, everything, or nothing. We argue over the meaning of words incessantly. Nobody wins.

Today, I’m going to talk about the intersection of semantics and lexicology – that lonely place where meaning lives.

Don’t be scared. That’s almost all the linguistic jargon I’m going to use.

Jargon is one of my favorite words. It comes from a French word that means “the twittering of birds.” In what John Ciardi, one of my favorite etymologists, would call “ghost etymology” (a word history somebody made up because it sounds good), I once read jargon comes from jargere, which the writer said means “to make a choking, strangling noise at the back of your throat.” I wish I could verify that particular meaning.

Every profession or clique has its own jargon — its own theives cant — designed as much to streamline communication within the group as to occult it from outsiders.

Instead of jargon, nomenclature, or whatever, I’m going to tell a story I like to call “The Lion’s Share of Meaning.”

But before I get to that, let me ask you a question.

Is it more important to be understood or to be right?

Robert Heinlein said, “If you’re arguing with your spouse, and it turns out you’re right, apologize immediately.” He also said, “You can be forgiven for being wrong a lot faster than for being right.”

Have you ever heard an argument so rabid as one between two people who agree with one another but use different words to state their points? Not unless it was one that arose from a broken understanding when people used the same words to mean different things.

These are often the arguments that lead to irreconcilable hurt feelings, to the dissolution of friendships, to violence.

Pride and Words are at the heart of these arguments. We seem to have an unquenchable need to be right. Sometimes it’s easier to say someone else is wrong than to prove we’re right.

And that calls into question the meaning of being right. What does it mean to be right?

The story that comprises the lion’s share of my speech comes from Aesop via John Ciardi.

What does “the lion’s share” mean?

Here’s how it started:

The lion organized a hunting party. After the party made the kill, the lion stepped up to the carcass and said, “As the King of Beasts and organizer of this hunt, I deserve half of the kill.”

The other animals grudgingly admitted that was the lion’s right. So does “the lion’s share” mean half?

No. As the other animals closed in, the lion raised his voice. “And my wife and children deserve half of what remains because they are my family.” Again, the rest of the hunters conceded the right of the lion’s family to another quarter of the carcass. So does “the lion’s share” mean three-quarters?

Not really. As the hungry hunters hunkered closer to the carcass, the lion said, “And I’ll fight anyone who wants any of the remainder.”

So “the lion’s share” doesn’t mean half or most or three-fourths. It means the lion wants it all. But if you use the phrase correctly, nobody will know what you mean. As John Ciardi advises, “Never be so right as to be misunderstood.”

It’s more important to be understood than to be right. It’s more important to understand what each other’s words really mean. Sometimes you may find, you agree.

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