A Power That’s Worth Untold Fortunes

“All our work, our whole life is a matter of semantics, because words are the tools with which we work, the material out of which laws are made, out of which the Constitution was written. Everything depends on our understanding of them.” – Felix Frankfurter

Today, I’d like to offer you an incredibly powerful gift, one that will “keep on giving” every day throughout 2008!

For the “12 Days of Christmas,” ETR helped bring in the New Year by giving you, our loyal reader, 12 special gifts. Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some (if not all) of that great information.

And we want to keep sending you valuable presents. So throughout the entire year of 2008, we want to give you something every day. It’s a special gift – a power, really – that can be worth untold fortunes and can yield awesome consequences.

Proof? In one case, this power will settle a fortune of $3.5 billion. In another, it held the ability to nearly bring down the most powerful man in the world.

I am talking about the power of the simple word.

Because they’re plentiful and cheap, it is easy to take words for granted. But here at ETR, we take the words we give you very seriously. For every issue of Early to Rise (each consisting of somewhere around 3,000 words)…

  • Our managing editor Suzanne Richardson tirelessly works with all of our contributors to ensure that each article you eventually see has passed the “5 C’s” test: that it’s clean, clear, concise, compelling, and correct. (And that’s just the beginning…)
  • Editor-extraordinaire Judith Strauss dramatically improves virtually every article we run with her 30+ years of skillful copyediting.
  • Michael Masterson, MaryEllen Tribby, and I (and often other ETR staff experts) carefully review every article to make sure it is consistent with the core Early to Rise philosophy… and perhaps most important, that it gives you useful, interesting, and actionable advice.

And so, with our day-to-day obsession with words, it’s good to step back once in a while and consider their awesome might from a new perspective.

That’s just what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks as I’ve been reading Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought – Language as a Window Into Human Nature.

At 499 pages, I have to admit this brainy treatise occasionally dives into academic waters a bit too deep for me. And yet, most of the time, Pinker manages to bring complex but intellectually fascinating linguistic subjects down to earth with popular culture references, a coy sense of wit, and clear and concise writing.

The book opens with a remarkable story about one word that could very well be said to be worth $3.5 billion. It is the word “event.”

When we think of an “event,” we think of a thin slice of time. But where does one cut the ribbon in the time continuum on either side of that slice?

This is not just an academic question. Consider, for example, September 11, 2001, our own modern “day that will live in infamy.”

On that late-summer morning, was the World Trade Center tragedy one event… or two?

You could certainly make a case that the answer is “one.” As Pinker explains, “The attacks on the buildings were part of a single plan conceived in the mind of one man in service of a single agenda. They unfolded within a few minutes and yards of each other, targeting the parts of a complex with a single name, design, and owner. And they launched a single chain of military and political events in their aftermath.”

Sounds reasonable enough, yes?

Well, maybe not. Perhaps the answer should be that 9/11 was “two” events. Listen as Pinker plays devil’s advocate to himself:

“The towers were distinct collections of glass and steel… separated and hit at different times.” He explains that in looking at the foreboding amateur video of the second plane approaching, one event appears frozen in the past; the other just about to happen. Clearly, these are two distinct events.

But why all the fuss? One event, two events, what’s the difference? Isn’t it all just semantics?

Well, to Larry Silverstein, leaseholder of the World Trade Center, the difference is much more than semantics. Silverstein held insurance that stipulated a maximum reimbursement of $3.5 billion for each destructive “event.”

If 9/11 was a single event, he collects $3.5 billion. If it was two events, he gets $7 billion. Think the meaning of the word “event” is just semantics to Silverstein or his insurance company?

Here’s another example of the power of a single word from The Stuff of Thought.

Did George Bush lie in his 2003 State of the Union address when he said “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”?

Investigations since have shown that British intelligence did believe that Saddam was trying to buy yellowcake (uranium ore) from Africa. But, Pinker explains, the “lie” question hinges on one of Bush’s words.

Can you guess which one it is?

If you said “learned,” you are right.

In just one of dozens of fascinating insights in the book, Pinker explains that “learn” is a “factive” verb. That means it presupposes that the proposition it introduces is factually and indisputably true. (Some factive verbs are: knew, agreed, realized, discovered, admitted, observed, showed, and learned. Some non-factive verbs are: suspect, believe, think, wonder, and hope.)

Condoleezza Rice, Pinker reports, later argued “The British have said that” regarding Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Africa. But, of course, President Bush did not say “The British have said that.” He said they have “learned” that.

Again, just one word – and think of the consequences! This time, not representing $3.5 billion in insurance payments but perhaps far, far more.

As an Early to Rise reader, we hope you see and share in our respect for the power of words. And that you benefit richly from it too.

We try to bring you unique, interesting, useful, contrarian ideas each morning, 365 days a year (366 in 2008!). Some to improve your health. Some to build your wealth. And others, perhaps like today’s, to just let you ponder ideas you might not otherwise encounter.

But the ideas we offer up are only valuable if the words you choose to express them with can clearly transmit that idea into your consciousness. That’s why we go through the considerable pains I mentioned earlier in our attempt to do so.

We’re also your eyes and ears for new books, such as Steven Pinker’s, that provide plenty of fodder for those little idea incubators we hope many of our readers have running in their minds.

And speaking of Pinker, I’d be remiss if I didn’t leave you with a few more nuggets from his book…

  • On words and emotional connotations: “I am slim; you are thin; he is scrawny. I am a perfectionist; you are anal; he is a control freak. I am exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is a slut.”
  • On polite requests (what linguists call a whimperative): “When you issue a request, you are presupposing that the hearer will comply. But apart from employees or intimates, you can’t just boss people around. Still, you do want the damn guacamole. The way out is to couch your request as a stupid question (‘Can you…?’), a pointless rumination (‘I was wondering if…’), a gross overstatement (‘It would be awesome if…’), or some other blather that is so incongruous the hearer can’t take it at face value. She does some quick intuitive psychology to infer your real intent and at that same time she senses that you have made an effort not to treat her as a factotum. A stealthy request allows you to do two things at once – communicate your request, and signal your understanding of the relationship.”
  • On passive verbs and objectivity: “A pro-Israel group noted the prevalence of Reuter’s headlines like BUS BLOWS UP IN CENTRAL JERUSALEM, which uses an intransitive to downplay the responsible agent. As the linguist Geoffrey Pullum notes, ‘”Bus Blows Up” is indeed a strange way to describe an incident in which a human being straps explosives to himself, gets on a crowded bus in a city street, and kills 13 people by detonating his payload, clearly intending to murder as many Jews as possible at one go…. Reuters describes the event as if the bus had just exploded all on its own.'”
  • On semantic chaos: “Often polysemy arises when a word is used to refer to something that is merely associated with its usual referent, a device called metonymy. I can say that Suzie is parked out back or that Bradley was rear-ended by a bus, or Put Chomsky on the Linguistics shelf and You can find Hitchcock at the back of the store. We can also refer to people by their parts and associations, as when a nurse says The gallbladder in 220 needs his dressing changed or when one waitress tells another The ham sandwich wants his check.”

The list goes on… and on. If you’re interested in polysemy and metonymy; if you take pleasure in analogies and metaphors; if you want to read an illuminating (and very funny) chapter on the most foul and vile words and why they have the very odd effects that they do… then I suggest you pick up a copy of The Stuff of Thought.

And then throughout the rest of this 2008 year, take our ideas from ETR (and the ones we tell you about that originate in other places), and take our ideas about words too – and see what you can do with them yourself.

As Pinker says, “We are verbivores, a species that lives on words, and the meaning and use of language are bound to be among the major things we ponder, share, and dispute.”

After all, if knowledge is power, then the words you read here – and can reuse and reshape yourself – are the tools that can turn that inherent power into love, money, influence, fame… whatever it is you desire.

[Ed. Note: Charlie Byrne is ETR’s Editorial and Creative Director. Harness the incredible power of words by adding 120 new words to your vocabulary with ETR’s Words to the Wise CD Library. You’ll feel smarter and more confident, you’ll be more persuasive to others, and you’ll gain more respect from your peers and superiors alike.]