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Maxed out

Them’s mincing words

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Words are so weird it’s a wonder any clear idea ever gets communicated using them. This, of course, is a terrible admission for someone who writes words and gets paid for it to make but perhaps familiarity has bred contempt. This does not mean I don’t believe anything I write. I believe most of what I write, most itself being a word that can mean anywhere from 51per cent to 99 per cent. The rest – do the math – I make up and slip past myself when I’m not paying any attention.

You may not agree with my premise. You might, if we were talking about this over a refreshing beverage at a sunny table on, say, Zeuski’s patio, look at me for a moment and say, "Interesting idea." Or you might say "Do you really think that’s the case?" Or, "I’m not completely certain I share your low opinion of the way words are used." When what you really mean is "You are so wrong I can’t believe you can talk and drink beer at the same time without separate instructions for each."

But I’d never know that from the words you’d chosen.

Admittedly, words themselves are partly to blame for this sorry state of affairs. Words change over time through practice and usage. Dictionaries, through their sheer weight and size, give the impression that words are static. One only has to read a few pages of Shakespeare and then get into a conversation with a 20 year old skateboarder to lay waste to the idea of words being immutable.

A chosen few even change so dramatically they come to mean just the opposite of what they used to mean. For example, if you’d stumbled into the Longhorn Saloon in Mesilla, New Mexico, one hundred years ago, bellied up to the bar, ordered a whisky and a beer and said to no one in particular, "Words are so weird it’s a wonder any clear idea ever gets communicated using them," most of the cowhands at the bar would have ignored you, smashed a bottle over your head, or simply shot you dead to put you out of their misery.

But if one of them had the cantankerousness to look at you and say, "You are so wrong I can’t believe you can talk and drink beer at the same time without separate instructions for each," you might have gotten into a bet with him to prove you were right. Having settled on the wager, you’d each be expected to pony up – a man’s word was his bond but everyone wanted to see the cash up front – before going about settling the bet which, in this case, probably would have involved beating the snot out of each other since the subject was, shall we say, more open to debate than resolution.

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