The trouble with words

This is about language and polarisation.

Think of the word "glass". What does it mean? If you are thinking of glass in the sense of something that holds fluid then that could mean a straight-sided water glass, a champagne flute, a beer mug and many other variants.

For me the word glass often conjures the image of a small beaker of water I used to take to bed as a child. I just asked my wife: she said "an old fashioned green window glass with bobbles in it". Which I wasn't expecting. Our understanding of words is affected by our experience.

If we are in a pub we are more likely to think beer or wine glass. If we are in a greenhouse we're more likely to think glazing. And so on. Our interpretation of meaning of words is also dependent on context.

Words are non-specific; they generalise. And this property is essential for effective communication. In someone’s house, asking for a "clear, heavy-based highball glass" of water would be a bit weird. It doesn't matter what kind of glass. They're certainly not going to serve you a puddle of water on a piece of window pane. Glass on its own does the job.

Words are a means of mentally holding different things as the same. A means of mentally holding different things as the same. (Typed twice for impact.)

Try it.

And this is er... crazy.

In mid-2016, after a good deal of wrestling with myself, I came to the conclusion that I'd prefer we remained in the EU. And I think the same now. So I'm a Remainer, right? And the others who decided the opposite, Leavers?

These are convenient labels to distinguish between two categories of thinking. I hear them used a lot at the moment. Often pejoratively.

But I don't think of myself as a Remainer. My attitude to the situation is complex, fluid, patchy and probably muddled. Lumping all this complexity into a single-word label doesn't feel right. I sense most of us react to being labelled, even when it’s done benignly.

The vital linguistic mechanism of holding different things as the same can cause division. And polarisation.

We should watch out. We can all contribute to counteracting it by being conscious of divisive words: by avoiding using them and by probing for deeper meaning when others do.