The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 30, 2011

The Ambiguity of Important Words

Filed under: English is weird,vocabulary — amba12 @ 2:23 pm

. . . in English, that is.  It’s recently grabbed my attention that English perhaps uniquely leaves its most important words—such as love, work, belief—ambiguous and multivalent.  For example, Greek distinguishes between eros, agape, and philia, and maybe even more, but we use “love” for all three.  Over at Ron Fisher’s new blog The End of Work, we’ve had disagreements that have led to stimulating discussions, because we are using the word “work” simultaneously in so many different senses: effort, drudgery, energy expenditure, employment, calling (“your life’s work”), and more.  And now, in the comments at Ambiance, starting here and resuming here, I’m getting embroiled in a similar discussion about the word “belief.”

How to explain this quality of English?  It’s clear why we don’t have as many words for snow as Eskimos—we lack life-or-death need for such distinctions (and therefore, perhaps, aesthetic delight in them)—but the same cannot be said of love, work, or belief, which, in their many permutations, permeate our entire lives.  Is this a failing of English or, on some deep level, a deliberate choice?  If there is danger and confusion in this ambiguity, there’s also tremendous generative power (look how it can make us rack our brains! what’s more creative—and harder work!—than thinking about things there aren’t ready-made words for?), and also a recognition of deep, if conflicted, relationships among the many phenomena we call love . . . or work . . . or belief.

I would appreciate input from people with knowledge of other languages.  Is English really so unique in this?  If so, is it part of what has made English so hardy and adaptable?

(In Spanish, “I love you” in the romantic sense is often stated, not “Te amo” but “Te quiero”—literally, “I want you.” That at least seems honest!)

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