Why worry about the meaning of what we say? How much is our perception of time affected by this meaning?

How about we end this month with some semantics?  Right, let’s briefly talk about the study of word definitions.  Let’s explore the way that we use some common terms or phrases concerning time.  I know it sounds boring but how can we spend another year talking about time if we do not agree on some basic terms?  For instance, we talk about being on time, being ahead of the times and being behind the times. We use these phrases so often that they become “unconscious” and we seldom reflect on what they mean or whether they really mean what we want them to mean.  We all think we know what they mean but do we really agree with what they mean?  Are we using them “correctly?”   Can you really be ahead of or behind the times? 
We sometimes say that someone is “stuck” in the past.  We may know someone who seems to fondly remember their best days as when they were the high school quarterback or when they were in college or when they lived someplace else or some other time that was happier or more pleasant for them.  We joke that they are “stuck” in the past and cannot seem to move forward.  However, are they really stuck in the past?  What does it mean to be stuck in the past?  Can they be partially stuck or only stuck sometimes?  If so, how can they get “unstuck?”  Are we all stuck in the past at least sometimes? 
There are many other phrases that we use concerning time that have become so habitual with us that we take them for granted. We assume that we know what they mean when we hear them.  We apply them to our lives and to those around us without thinking about how we use them or what their use implies. The novel “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll is so powerful because the meaning of words and the way they are used in the Alice story forces us to rethink how we use words.  For instance, who ever heard of an “un-birthday” party?  Well, it is a wonderful twist on an expectation that you can only have a party on your birthday.  You can have an “unbirthday party” 364 days a year.  One of my favorite exchanges in the story takes place between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
Alice: The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.
Humpty Dumpty: The question is: who is to be master – that’s all.
The phrases that we use concerning time can have many different meanings. We each choose the meaning that we desire or that we learned as a child. Other people may have different meanings or different associations.  For instance, what does it mean to be late? What does it mean to be on-time? Who decides what is late and who decides what is on-time is?  How late is late?  What does it take to be on time?  Who decides?  Well of course, you and I do, right?  If so, then how come so much of the world seems to thwart our best efforts to be on time?  Maybe we are all dancing to a different beat. 
Is it worth the effort to get everybody in sync with their definitions of time?  Does everyone you know agree with your definitions of time?  Do you belief that your definitions are right and everyone else is wrong?  What if your definitions of time were more flexible? What difference would this make for your family and friends?  Are you too flexible already?  What if you were less flexible? Would your life be smoother and happier?  How far can we go with no common definitions for time? Who decides?  Maybe February 30 would be a good day to decide?
Finally, here is a plug for a reader of my blog who has a new article out called 10 Reasons I Don’t Want to Look at My Work Email
I think you will agree that most of these reasons have to do with the time that email now captures or destroys in our lives.  I for one am often “afraid” to open or even look at my email. 

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 14:58:14

    I think that most word meanings enter the language as metaphors, and then are used so much that their metaphorical genesis is forgotten and they are treated as literal. To say that someone is behind the times or is living in the past means that the speaker thinks that he is too concerned with old issues or not concerned enough with the “latest” thing.

    I'm doubtful that we can pin down our definitions all that much. Examining the words we use closely will just reveal their fuzzy metaphorical bases. When it comes to exact definitions, outside of a few mathematical or logical terms, there is no there there.

    What counts as early or late depends on individual sensibilities. I almost always arrive at least slightly before I said I would. I always leave a margin for unexpected things and have even managed to still be early despite bad traffic or even flat tires. I think this is a good trait (and can't help it anyway since it has become such a habit), but I have occasionally detected negative reactions from others. Many consider it more genteel and polite to be what I would consider slightly late.



  2. John Persico
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 15:36:41

    Hi Bruce, thanks for the comments. You always add a great perspective to what I have written. I am also always habitually early and I enjoy it as well. I cannot even consider being late. Too bad though that we cannot ever have an objective or completely agreeable set of terms. It might make life much easier.



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