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What Discovered Really Means, and the War Against Words

OPINION: Would you rather communicate or have a petty battle of intellect?

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I find it intriguing when someone rolls their eyes and says something like, “How did _____ discover _____ when there were people already there?”

The word discover isn’t meant to indicate the first person in the history of time who went somewhere, but it just means the first time someone exposed a particular place, group of people, animal, or thing to the group they come from. Discovery is relative to culture, and all it means is “the first one of us who went there that we can remember.”

But what this particular word means or doesn’t mean isn’t the issue or my point. What sticks in my craw is how it is becoming increasingly popular for people in Western societies to dissect the meaning of words as a challenge to the people they’re talking with and the status-quo in general. It’s irritating to have someone who understands perfectly well what you mean stop the flow of conversation to make a pointless attempt to correct your vocabulary. It’s insulting when the corrector acts as if they are presenting you with a new idea . . .

What benefit does it serve to take something that is simple and direct and intentionally make it a point of contention? What is the rationale behind taking a friendly conversation and turning it into a confrontation?

Language is by design imprecise. It’s meant to convey big, complex ideas in small packets of sound or writing. Humans have the amazing capacity to conceive a much larger picture from language which extends far beyond the base words we use. Words are not pictures, they are symbols. They are over-simplifications of a ideas, actions, emotions, and things that are no more exact than that swerving black line and arrow on a road sign that indicates a curve ahead.  Words, in and of themselves, are generalizations of reality. If you don’t generalize, you don’t speak.

Nobody should take up other people’s time with four sentences to express what could otherwise be said in four words. There is no need for us to qualify, and qualify, and qualify our statements as a defensive mechanism against people who seem to enjoy latching onto some word that we say and correct us.

“Well, actually, that means . . .”

“Oh certainly not all Chinese people are like . . .”

“Oh, you’re an American, well I’m an American too, I’m from Canada, that’s North America you know . . .”

“How could he discover . . .”

It’s like we’d rather compete with each other in clashes of intellect and anal nit picking than communicate.

The beauty of language is that we can wrap a complex reality up into a little package, send it to other people, and share an impression of our experience. The transferred product will not match the original, but it’s amazing how close it can come based on the crudeness of the delivery method. Take words too literally and they lose their meaning, they lose their power. Stripped of context, many words are so vague as to be nearly meaningless. Language is an imperfect, imprecise, dummied down, simplistic way of communicating that is based in implied meaning and convention, not the literal definitions of its rudiments.

To use a worn Buddhist adage, words are fingers pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. To use the western equivalent: don’t miss the forest for the trees.


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Filed under: Language, Opinion

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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