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← The conquest of new words | John Koenig | TEDxBerkeley

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Showing Revision 2 created 03/11/2017 by Krystian Aparta.

  1. Thanks for sticking around,
  2. thanks for having a big red X
    burned into your eyeballs
  3. for the next three days.
  4. (Laughter)
  5. Today I want to talk
    about the meaning of words,
  6. how we define them
  7. and how they, almost as revenge,
  8. define us.
  9. The English language
    is a magnificent sponge.

  10. I love the English language.
    I'm glad that I speak it.
  11. I think you are all lucky
    to speak it, as well.
  12. But for all that, it has a lot of holes.
  13. In Greek, there's a word, "lachesism"
  14. which is the hunger for disaster.
  15. You know, when you see
    a thunderstorm on the horizon
  16. and you just find yourself
    rooting for the storm.
  17. In Mandarin, they have a word "yù yī" --
  18. I'm not pronouncing that correctly --
  19. which means the longing
    to feel intensely again
  20. the way you did when you were a kid.
  21. In Polish, they have a word "jouska"
  22. which is the kind of
    hypothetical conversation
  23. that you compulsively
    play out in your head.
  24. And finally, in German,
    of course in German,
  25. they have a word called "Zielschmerz,"
  26. which is the dread
    of getting what you want.
  27. (Laughter)

  28. Finally fulfilling a lifelong dream.

  29. I'm German myself,
    so I know exactly what that feels like.
  30. Now, I'm not sure
    if I would use any of these words

  31. as I go about my day,
  32. but I'm really glad they exist.
  33. But the only reason they exist
    is because I made them up.
  34. I am the author of "The Dictionary
    of Obscure Sorrows,"

  35. which I've been writing
    for the last seven years.
  36. And the whole mission of the project
  37. is to find holes
    in the language of emotion
  38. and try to fill them
  39. so that we have a way of talking
    about all those human peccadilloes
  40. and quirks of the human condition
  41. that we all feel
    but may not think to talk about
  42. because we don't have the words to do it.
  43. It started watching the end credits
    of "Saturday Night Live,"
  44. and I was beset by the most
    beautiful and haunting melancholy.
  45. If you ever get a chance
    to stay up that late,
  46. I would urge you to watch
    the end credits of SNL.
  47. And so, I decided to try
    to define that emotion.
  48. And about halfway through this project,

  49. I defined "sonder,"
  50. the idea that we all think of ourselves
    as the main character
  51. and everyone else is just extras.
  52. But in reality,
    we're all the main character,
  53. and you yourself are an extra
    in someone else's story.
  54. And so as soon as I published that,
  55. I got a lot of response from people
  56. saying "thank you for giving voice
    to something I had felt all my life
  57. but there was no word for that."
  58. So it made them feel less alone.
  59. That's the power of words,
  60. to make us feel less alone.
  61. And it was not long after that
  62. that I started to notice sonder

  63. being used earnestly
    in conversations online,
  64. and not long after I actually noticed it,
  65. I caught it next to me
    in an actual conversation in person.
  66. There is no stranger feeling
    than making up a word
  67. and then seeing it
    take on a mind of its own.
  68. I don't have a word
    for that yet, but I will.
  69. (Laughter)

  70. I'm working on it.

  71. I started to think
    about what makes words real,

  72. because a lot of people ask me,
  73. the most common thing
    I got from people is,
  74. "Well, are these words made up?
    I don't really understand."
  75. And I didn't really know what to tell them

  76. because once sonder started to take off,
  77. who am I to say what words
    are real and what aren't.
  78. And so I sort of felt like Steve Jobs,
    who described his epiphany
  79. as when he realized that most of us,
    as we go through the day,
  80. we just try to avoid
    bouncing against the walls too much
  81. and just sort of get on with things.
  82. But once you realize that people --
  83. that this world was built
    by people no smarter than you,
  84. then you can reach out
    and touch those walls
  85. and even put your hand through them
  86. and realize that you have
    the power to change it.
  87. It's phenomenal.
  88. So I think from there,
    that changed how I look at words
  89. and what makes words real.
  90. And when people ask me,
    "Are these words real?"

  91. I had a variety of answers
    that I tried out.
  92. Some of them made sense.
    Some of them didn't,
  93. but one of them I tried out was,
  94. "Well, a word is real
    if you want it to be real."
  95. The way that this path is real
    because people wanted it to be there.
  96. (Laughter)

  97. It happens on college
    campuses all the time.

  98. It's called a "desire path."
  99. (Laughter)

  100. And so, languages
    are a reflection of desire
  101. something that they want to be there.
  102. And it may be the road less traveled,
  103. but it will get there eventually.
  104. But that's not really a satisfying answer,
  105. so I gave up on that one.
  106. But then I decided,
    what people are really asking

  107. when they're asking if a word is real,
    they're really asking,
  108. "Well, how many brains
    will this give me access to?"
  109. Because I think that's
    a lot of how we look at language.
  110. A word is essentially a key
  111. that gets us into certain people's heads,
  112. and if it gets us into one brain,
  113. it's not really worth it,
  114. not really worth knowing.
  115. Two brains, eh, it depends on who it is.
  116. A million brains, OK, now we're talking.
  117. And so a real word is one that gets you
    access to as many brains as you can.
  118. That's what makes it worth knowing.
  119. Incidentally, the realest word of all
    by this measure is this.

  120. [O.K.]

  121. That's it.

  122. The realest word we have.
  123. That is the closest thing we have
    to a master key.
  124. That's the most commonly
    understood word in the world,
  125. no matter where you are.
  126. The problem with that is,
  127. no one seems to know
    what those two letters stand for.
  128. (Laughter)

  129. Which is kind of weird, right?

  130. I mean, it could be a misspelling
    of "all correct," I guess,
  131. or "old kinderhook."
  132. No one really seems to know,
    but the fact that it doesn't matter
  133. says something about
    how we add meaning to words.
  134. The meaning is not
    in the words themselves.
  135. We're the ones
    that pour ourselves into it.
  136. And I think, when we're all searching
    for meaning in our lives,

  137. and searching for the meaning of life,
  138. I think words have
    something to do with that.
  139. And I think if you're looking
    for the meaning of something,
  140. the dictionary is a decent place to start.
  141. I saw an interview with
    the religious scholar Reza Aslan.
  142. He was describing a misunderstanding
  143. that many people have about religion.
  144. He said that what a religion is
  145. is basically a set of
    symbols and metaphors
  146. that people pour themselves into
  147. to try to express something inexpressible.
  148. Religion is essentially just a language.
  149. That's all it is.
  150. It's a container for whatever
    meanings we bring to it.
  151. And that got me thinking ...
  152. What if language was a kind of religion.
  153. That would mean that this
    is basically our holy book.
  154. And if you think of the creation story,
  155. it's really more of a definition story.
  156. In the beginning, there was chaos
    upon the waters of the Earth
  157. and then God separated
    the land from the sea,
  158. the fish from the birds, man from woman,
  159. the eternal from the ephemeral.
  160. That's all in these pages.
  161. That's what a definition is.
  162. And so, if we're looking
    for meaning in the world,
  163. this is our faith, this is our holy book.
  164. Because the reality is,
  165. and the point of this holy book,
  166. and the point of, I think, all holy books,
  167. is that it brings a sense of order
  168. to a very chaotic universe.
  169. Our view of things is so limited
  170. and the universe is so complicated
  171. that we have to come up
    with patterns and shorthands
  172. and try to figure out
    a way to interpret it
  173. and be able to get on with our day.
  174. And that's why we need words to do that,
  175. to give meaning to our lives.
  176. But even more than that,
  177. we need words to contain us,
    to define ourselves.
  178. And that is, I think, a lot
    of how we use words right now,
  179. we're all sort of begging
    to be defined, in certain ways.
  180. And I think especially now,
    with technology and globalization,
  181. it's so easy to get lost in the fog.
  182. Each of us is undefined, in a way,
  183. and the world is becoming
    ever more undefined.
  184. And so, I think a lot
    of the structures that we look to
  185. to try to contain ourselves
  186. look like this.
  187. Both in the sense
    of "pound" and "hashtag."
  188. (Laughter)
  189. It's trying to box ourselves in
    in certain ways
  190. and say, to look for certain entries
    and certain categories
  191. and say, "Yes, that's me."
  192. What we do is look at other people
  193. and say, "You're like me ...
  194. And so, we are an 'us'."
  195. And that gives us meaning.
  196. That's just a way of borrowing meaning.
  197. The problem is that a lot of that
    depends on institutions
  198. and there are so many of us now,
  199. and life is now so complicated and chaotic
  200. that we have to wall ourselves off.
  201. We're becoming
    fundamentalists in our faith.
  202. Literalists.
  203. Because we all feel these categories
    start to fall apart.
  204. Have you noticed how many
    of our conversations now
  205. are about the definitions of words?
  206. I don't know how many times I've seen
    a conversation on the Huffington Post
  207. that starts "Are you a feminist?"
  208. "What does 'feminist' mean?"
  209. "Who on this debate stage
    is the real progressive?"
  210. "What does 'socialist' mean?"
  211. "Who is a 'fascist'?"
  212. "Who is a 'woman'?"
  213. Caitlyn Jenner.
  214. "Who is 'black'?" Rachel Dolezal.
  215. These are the kind of conversations
    we have all the time,
  216. but they're not really about meaning.
  217. They're about how we package the world.
  218. And so, I think the end result
  219. is that we end up
    looking something like this,
  220. where we allow words to define us.
  221. We forget that all words are made up.
  222. They're just models of how the world
    could be or should be,
  223. and so, we're all withdrawing
    in our own communities of concern,
  224. speaking in our own languages
  225. when in fact, the world is more than that.
  226. I think all of us feel
  227. that the categories that we use
    to give our lives meaning
  228. don't necessarily fit us all that well.
  229. And so, we have to explain to people that,
  230. that, "Yes, I subscribe to this,
  231. but that doesn't define me.
  232. We have to keep doing this over and over,
  233. negotiating how we fit
    into the categories that we have.
  234. I think a lot of us feel boxed in
  235. by how we use these words.
  236. We forget that words are made up.
  237. It's not just my words.
    All words are made up,
  238. but not all of them mean something.
  239. And so I think what I'd like to --
  240. The image I have of where we are today,
  241. I think of Anne Frank.
  242. Because she was in her little
    apartment in Amsterdam
  243. and in a time when everyone around her
  244. was trying to organize humanity
  245. in a way that made sense
    with clean lines and brutal efficiency,
  246. she was on the inside,
    organizing her own humanity.
  247. I think there's something
    really beautiful about that,
  248. because a lot of it was
    about her own confusion
  249. and her own vulnerability.
  250. And I think that's why we need
    a new kind of language
  251. that looks a little more like this.
  252. Because each of us could be anyone.
  253. At any given time,
    we are not just one person,
  254. we are many people at once.
  255. And so, we have to get more in line
    with how the world actually is,
  256. not to get too caught up in the models
    that we've imposed on the world.
  257. GPS devices tend to warn you,
  258. reminding you that the map you see
    is not the real world,
  259. so don't run into a lake.
  260. (Laughter)
  261. And I think we need the same reminder,
  262. that the map is not the real world
  263. and so if we run into these problems,
  264. we have an option
    to define things for ourself;
  265. we don't necessarily
    just have to borrow the meanings
  266. that give meaning to our lives.
  267. It is possible --
  268. and I know this because
    I've been doing it the last seven years --
  269. to come up with new metaphors
  270. that make the invisible visible.
  271. There's something
    really beautiful about that.
  272. And I think if we got
    in a better relationship with chaos,
  273. if we stopped trying to oversimplify
  274. the interior storm
    that all of us are facing
  275. and the confusion and the vulnerability,
  276. and how complicated the world really is,
  277. then we could feel
    a little more comfortable in our skin
  278. and we wouldn't have to withdraw
  279. within the categories
    that we allow to define us.
  280. And we could take the power
    back from our words
  281. and define them.
  282. I think that's a little more
    healthy relationship.
  283. I don't know how many conversations
    would be benefited by someone --
  284. Like the game Catch Phrase,
  285. where you're given
    the actual topic you're talking about,
  286. so the challenge is,
    "Don't say that word."
  287. I think if we all did that,
    we would be a little better off.
  288. Because it would allow
    certain lexical fluidity
  289. that I think we're losing now.
  290. We're all just sort of
    trapped in our own lexicons
  291. that don't necessarily correlate
    with people who aren't already like us,
  292. and so I think I feel us drifting apart
    a little more every year,
  293. the more seriously we take words.
  294. Because remember, words are not real.

  295. They don't have meaning. We do.
  296. I think it's important to remember that.
  297. And if we took some sense
    of creativity and authorship
  298. in inventing who we are,
  299. that is possible.
  300. It is possible to try to reach
    for richer metaphors.
  301. This world has never been as complicated,
  302. and our lives have never been
    more complicated than they are right now.
  303. And so, instead of reaching
    for the nearest standardized word,
  304. or just begging to be
    diagnosed with something,
  305. it is worth actually being present,
  306. in sadness, for example.
  307. In the chaos of emotion.
  308. I think that's worth doing.
  309. I think we need new lenses
  310. to help contextualize the chaos
    that we face all the time.
  311. And if we do that,
  312. if each of us is willing
    to actually define who it is we are
  313. with some sense of creativity,
  314. I think the world could look
    a little more like this.
  315. Really messy.
  316. I think we are really messy people
  317. and the world is a really messy world.
  318. And I think this would not be so bad,
  319. us pouring out of these institutions,
  320. which are weakening all the time,
  321. and meeting each other as we are,
  322. in all our vulnerability,
  323. wearing our emotions on our sleeves.
  324. And I think,
  325. as messy as it is,
  326. it would be a little more
    fulfilling to do that.
  327. And I'd like to leave you with a reading
  328. from one of my favorite philosophers,
  329. Bill Watterson, who created
    "Calvin and Hobbes."
  330. He said,
  331. "Creating a life that reflects
    your values and satisfies your soul
  332. is a rare achievement.
  333. To invent your own life's meaning
  334. is not easy,
  335. but it is still allowed,
  336. and I think you'll be
    happier for the trouble."
  337. Thank you.

  338. (Applause)