Expressive Vocabulary

“Thou shalt not strike terms from oth­ers’ ex­pres­sive vo­cab­u­lary with­out suit­able re­place­ment.” - me


Sup­pose your friend says: “I don’t buy that brand of dip. It’s full of chem­i­cals.”

Rea­son­able an­swer: “I’m skep­ti­cal that any of them are harm­ful in these quan­tities; we don’t have much rea­son to be­lieve that.”

Rea­son­able an­swer: “Yel­low 5? Are you aller­gic?”

Rea­son­able an­swer: “Okay, let’s get the kind with four eas­ily rec­og­niz­able in­gre­di­ents.”

No: “Tech­ni­cally, ev­ery­thing is chem­i­cals. Dihy­dro­gen monox­ide!”

Pedantry is sel­dom a way to make friends and in­fluence peo­ple, but this ex­am­ple par­tic­u­larly gets my goat be­cause there doesn’t seem to ac­tu­ally ex­ist a word in English for the thing you know perfectly well peo­ple mean when they say “chem­i­cals”. When I tried to find one on Twit­ter, the clos­est op­tions were “tox­ins” and “ad­di­tives”. But nei­ther is right. “Tox­ins” ex­cludes yel­low 5 - or, whether it does or not might be a point of con­tention; but it isn’t the thing origi­nally ex­pressed with the word “chem­i­cals”. Peo­ple may want to avoid—or oth­er­wise dis­cuss—“chem­i­cals” for rea­sons other than think­ing they’re liter­ally toxic; if I tell a maid I’m sen­si­tive to chem­i­cal smells but vine­gar is okay this is use­ful in­for­ma­tion. “Ad­di­tives” in­cludes, say, added sugar, which, while a plau­si­ble com­plaint, is a sep­a­rate com­plaint.


Sup­pose your grandma says, “Okay, no tech­nol­ogy at the din­ner table.”

Rea­son­able an­swer: “I’ll put the lap­top away to make room for the pota­toes, but I need the phone be­cause I get anx­ious with­out it.”

Rea­son­able an­swer: “Sure, Grandma.”

Rea­son­able an­swer: “We can try that un­til Un­cle Bill starts mak­ing eas­ily falsified claims about Flat Earth.”

No: “Tech­ni­cally, the din­ner table is a tech­nol­ogy. And so are your glasses, Grandma.”

In this case a more pre­cise word ex­ists—“elec­tron­ics” am­bigu­ously in­cludes the chan­de­lier but at least firmly sets aside the ques­tion of whether your grandma wants you to eat naked and with your bare hands. But re­fus­ing to know what she meant be­cause she could have got­ten closer to say­ing it, not even liter­ally (she isn’t be­ing metaphor­i­cal), but tech­ni­cally, pedan­ti­cally, defi­ni­tion­ally? This is both a bad so­cial move and a bad epistemic one; you’re hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion on a level that is wholly about ver­bal wal­l­pa­per. Do you pre­fer to say “elec­tron­ics” or dip into synech­doche with “screens” or spend nine syl­la­bles on “in­ter­net en­abled de­vices”? Are you ac­tu­ally un­sure if your grand­mother wants you to set aside your smart watch, dumb phone, or elec­tric blan­ket of in­ter­me­di­ate in­tel­lect? Use your own words, ask your own ques­tions, but don’t en­force an in­ad­e­quate pre­scrip­tivism with feigned in­com­pre­hen­sion while your in­ter­locu­tor only wants you to pass the peas.


Thou shalt not strike terms from oth­ers’ ex­pres­sive vo­cab­u­lary with­out suit­able re­place­ment. It’s a pet is­sue of mine; it’s my pinned tweet. “Suitable re­place­ment” means suit­able across the board, Pareto im­prove­ment as seen by the user along ev­ery axis a word can have. I think peo­ple are within their rights to re­ject a pro­posed re­place­ment for not mean­ing the right thing, sound­ing ugly, be­ing one syl­la­ble longer, be­ing hard to spell, not rhyming in a poem they’re try­ing to write, and vague gut feel­ing that you’re just try­ing to con­trol them. I ex­tend this as far as “gypsy” and “Eskimo”, at least (and with slightly less fer­vor to a slur be­yond that if you re­ally don’t have an­other term for Brazil nuts).

Suitable re­place­ment is a very high stan­dard. It has to be. If you take some­one’s words away—and re­fus­ing to un­der­stand them when the prob­lem is not in fact in your un­der­stand­ing does that, since words are tools to com­mu­ni­cate—they are very di­rely crip­pled. Many peo­ple think com­mu­nica­tively; while you might not be their only out­let for work­ing through their ideas, so­cial shame for im­pre­cise lan­guage can do your work for you across the board if you hit some­one vuln­er­a­ble hard enough. If you offer them worse words in­stead of ex­pect­ing them to guess, they might only be crip­pled to the de­gree of wear­ing un­com­fortable shoes, but that’s still too much. Don’t set up shop a block farther away than you had to and dress code folks for wear­ing Crocs. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is already difficult.

Some things I am not say­ing:

  • you, yes you, have to talk to peo­ple who use words you can’t stand or in ways you can’t stand

Nah. Block peo­ple on ev­ery web­site you use over ship names and di­s­own your sister for say­ing “moist” for all I care. You also have my blan­ket per­mis­sion to use any sar­cas­tic defense mechanism that works for you against your abu­sive par­ents if you have those, or what­ever.

  • you should not offer peo­ple bet­ter words for what­ever value of “bet­ter”

By all means offer. “I think the preferred term is ‘trans­gen­der’ this week.” But if they can’t abide the differ­ence in shade of mean­ing or mouth­feel, maybe even if they overtly an­nounce it’s just be­cause they want to call it like they see it and they see it in some hor­rid way, don’t try to cor­rect them by pre­tend­ing to be miss­ing that sec­tion of your dic­tio­nary when you re­ally aren’t.

  • Humpty Dumpty was right, words mean what­ever the speaker wants them to mean, all is de­scrip­tivist chaos, “liter­ally ir­re­gard­less”

No. My ex­am­ples have in com­mon that they point at things and you can tell what things they are by be­ing a speaker of the lan­guage in the con­ver­sa­tional con­text. If some­one starts call­ing card­board boxes “pants” for no rea­son they’re just wrong and you don’t have to learn their stupid code.


Edit 12/​2019:

sir­jack­hol­land wrote a com­ment, now slightly buried, in­clud­ing this para­graph:

But I gen­uinely don’t know what “nat­u­ral” is sup­posed to (ap­prox­i­mately) carve up, es­pe­cially in the realm of foods. If you boil tea leaves, are the re­sult­ing com­pounds nat­u­ral? If yes, then at what point do things be­come un­nat­u­ral? If no, then is any­thing that’s not raw and un­pro­cessed un­nat­u­ral, in­clud­ing e.g. cooked meat or boiled pota­toes? There is clearly a spec­trum be­tween “raw and un­pro­cessed” and “in­dus­tri­ally en­g­ineered” but I don’t see any rea­son­able place to draw the line. And this makes the word “nat­u­ral” in the con­text of foods too vague to be use­ful—ev­ery time some­one uses it, you have to ask a se­ries of fol­lowup ques­tions to figure out where they (ar­bi­trar­ily) draw the line.

To which I replied:

I want to point out that there are lots of situ­a­tions where English speak­ers fluently use words that don’t have clear di­vid­ing lines be­tween their ap­pli­ca­bil­ity and their in­ap­pli­ca­bil­ity—it de­pends on con­text and de­tails. “The mu­sic is loud.” What if I’m deaf or far away or like to be able to feel the bass line in my bones? That doesn’t make the sen­tence im­per­mis­si­ble or even hard to un­der­stand and I don’t need the speaker to pro­duce a deci­bel value. “If you go to high al­ti­tudes, the air is thin­ner and you might get dizzy.” How high? If I’m dizzy in Den­ver and the speaker thinks you shouldn’t need to ad­just your be­hav­ior un­til there are Sher­pas about and mean­while Bat­man can breathe in space, that doesn’t make the sen­tence false, let alone use­less. “It’s cold, bring a jacket.” Oh you sweet sum­mer child, I’m good in short sleeves, thanks, I just don’t know what you meant by “cold” -
There are lots of con­ver­sa­tional pur­poses for which you don’t in fact have to know where some­one draws the line. You don’t even need to be able to agree on ev­ery point’s or­der­ing in the spec­trum (“it’s colder to­day” “that’s just wind­chill”). The words ges­ture in a di­rec­tion. I think “chem­i­cals” does too, and you know what di­rec­tion be­cause you came up with “un­pro­cessed” as a gloss on “low in chem­i­cals”. If some­one doesn’t buy that brand of dip be­cause it’s full of chem­i­cals, in your in­no­cent con­fu­sion I sug­gest you glance at the in­gre­di­ents list for a guess at the thresh­old in ques­tion.

In the lin­guis­tic sense, a term’s use can be “felic­i­tous”, with­out it hav­ing to be pre­cise, liter­ally ac­cu­rate, etc. If you don’t know what a word means but you know what spec­trum it’s on… that sug­gests that ac­tu­ally you know what the word means.