Friday, 21 May 2010

Word of the day


tr.v. re·i·fied, re·i·fy·ing, re·i·fies

To regard or treat (an abstraction) as if it had concrete or material existence.

[Latin res, thing]

Straightforward language is usually better than jargon, as George Orwell pointed out in his essay "Politics and the English Language" (I know I could do better in this regard, but I do try). Rule five of his six rules for good writing was:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

"Reify" is a word generally seen in academic essays rather than being heard down the pub, so it doesn't qualify as everyday English. I think it's a useful word, though, as it actually embodies an important idea that aids clear thinking.

A concrete example. I get increasingly annoyed when people promoting some sort of "Complementary and Alternative Medicine" or "New Age" idea conflate two of the several distinct meanings of the word "energy". In ordinary speech, "energy" means a healthy capacity for vigorous activity. To a physicist, "energy" is the capacity of a physical system to do work. Both definitions are valid but, crucially, they are not the same.

When some New Agey character starts talking about "good energy", "energy flows", "the energy in the room" and so on, are they actually talking about something that exists in the literal, physical sense as chemical, gravitational, electromagnetic or nuclear energy, or a subjective sense of motivation and well being? Generally, getting a straight answer to the question is like trying to nail jelly to the wall, because definition of energy has been debased to a slippery abstraction hovering somewhere between a physical thing and a metaphor.

I think the confusion and conflation is deliberate. In an irrational world hypnotised by PR voodoo, "energy" is a positive-sounding word, calculated to put an upbeat spin on the speaker's message at the same time as implying the science-y credibility of people who work out hard, real, technical stuff* - or, as Orwell put it, 'give an appearance of solidity to pure wind'.

It's at times like this that I find the word "reify" to be a useful little mind tool. Once you've realised that the speaker is trying to subtly reify the word "energy" as used in a colloquial, rather abstract, sense into something as real as gravitational, electromagnetic or chemical energy, you're immune to the rhetorical trick.

A straightforward way of speaking and writing, with a simple vocabulary is usually the best way. Complicated, fancy words are used, as often or not, to show off, as a smokescreen for unclear thought, or to deliberately deceive (I plead guilty to occasionally showing off and having unclear thoughts myself, although I hope I don't use language to deceive).

There is a case for loving unusual, "difficult" words, too. Sometimes it's just for the sheer useless loveliness and exoticism of the word - I rarely need to use the words "evanescent", "nacreous" or "quadrifoliate" but they're beautiful anyway. But sometimes it's the precision of "difficult" words that makes them valuable, clarifying, refining and expanding the range of thoughts we can have and express. I think "reify" is a word like that - an aid to thought and an antidote to propaganda, PR and spin. Destroy a word like that and you chip away at an idea:

...All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous...

"The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition," said Syme. "We're getting the language into its final shape - the shape it's going to have when nobody speaks anything else. You think our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words - scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We're cutting the language down to the bone. In the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words...

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it...

"There's no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect...

"Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."