Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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The power of vocabulary.

Published: 30 Oct 2012

The last few days have been filled with spirited discussions about life, psychology and improvement. My wife has been and continues to be great; I love her involvement and our discussions. We’ve both had to work to reach this level of communication. Recently the books I’ve been reading have given us a shared vocabulary to formalize what was before loose concepts.

Until now I didn’t understand the power of vocabulary. It’s significantly easier to discuss, explain and understand when complex concepts are standardized and commonly understood.

Every culture has their own vernacular, and to outsiders it’s complete gibberish. What about at a larger stage? What about when we’re talking about improvement, or simply learning new things? The vocabulary available to describe and explain the trials and tribulations we all share is woefully inadequate.

Experience without explanation

With varying depths we’ve all been asked or have asked how a blind person could describe color. How many of us have faced an even more important question?

How can the sighted describe a color?

This is a great exercise. Try it, right now. Describe the color green to yourself. Probably pretty easy. Now, try to describe the color green without any comparisons. If you take away the ability to say, “It’s the color of healthy grass” the task is significantly harder. We’re removing vocabulary. We’re used to relying on similes and commonly understood items. Without this the task is harder.

After I did this myself, my own answer takes away everything human about color. The most correct answer is a beam of light with a 510nm wavelength. The best real answer I can come up with is that it’s merely the fourth color of the rainbow. Both are mediocre descriptions that fail to properly describe green. These are consistent and correct answers, though.

When I asked my wife this question she initially answered in poetic fashion. I then removed the vocabulary and she floundered. She had the same feelings I had. Frustration and annoyance popped up. I’m not sure if the frustration is due to having something taken away or the inability to perform adequately. She knew what green was but wasn’t able to explain it.

The dangers of an empty cave

Unless I’m explaining things to myself, I’m going to fail without the proper terms. I’m leaving things out. I’m not increasing my knowledge I’m subconsciously filling the gaps with nothing more than memories. These memories are not reality, they are tinted through the lenses of time and mood. We need a second party to engage with to maximize our knowledge.

Without explaining what we encounter in formalized language, with a defined vocabulary, our understanding is limited. The polite term for this is artistic license. When we’re talking about our own knowledge, it’s more of being an ass than an artist.

Surrounded by assumptions

The same problems we have explaining things to ourselves are present when explaining them to others. In our minds we fill in the missing links with memories and our imagination. With others these gaps are filled with assumptions and bias. It’s extremely unlikely these assumptions and biases match to our own. We create conflict and misunderstands not just by missing parts of the story, but not even knowing about the parts that are left out.

When we formalize our explanations and descriptions, there is both implicit and explicit information that is attached. The implicit knowledge is the context in which we speak. Instead of saying Jane we can say she. The explicit information is being able to clearly and effectively describe something as it is, not what we think it is. Explicit information requires vocabulary and increases clarity, but is substantially more work.

Clarity takes time

Students of any field have a tremendous amount of vocabulary to learn. While I’ve used an adz, I have only recently learned the name. I only learned it because of Scrabble. I’ve never studied woodworking. All things are like this. There is a common language that has evolved over time, these vocabularies organically grow out of necessity.

The first step to improving ourselves in any discipline is to learn the vocabulary. We must learn how to ask questions. We must learn how to understand the answers. Without understanding the words we will never understand the ideas.