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Discovering New Words and New Meanings
By Jamie McKenzie
Our capacity to grasp complex ideas or deep concepts is tied in part to the shades and distinctions supported by our vocabularies. As we add new words to our collection, we can appreciate the difference between enchantment and charm, delight, capture and fraud.
This cluster diagram was created at the VisualThesaurus.Com and is reproduced here with permission. Check out their Educator Resources page at http://www.visualthesaurus.com/educators
|If our brains are filled with simple word lists, we are likely to see things in simple terms and respond well to those who give us simple answers to complex problems.
Web-based resources like the Visual Thesaurus support a kind of playful exploration of meanings that can enrich and expand vocabulary dramatically.
Starting with a word like enchant, we end up with an intriguing list of related terms:
If we click on the word beguile, the Visual Thesaurus soon leads us to words like hoodwink and we discover that enchantment is not always a pleasant or positive experience.
Our first thoughts about enchant tend to be simply positive, but further exploration shows that the word has darker dimensions leading all the way to capture and witchcraft. We might end up "bewitched, bothered and bewildered." We may lose our life savings in a Ponzi Scheme.
- I'm wild again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I
- Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
In these difficult economic times, after a decade of fraud and beguiling mortgage lenders, the term enchantment tilts toward the negative, as bamboozlement seems an appropriate substitute when waves of bailouts proceed along with bonus payments for the leaders of failing firms. The anger and feelings of betrayal experienced by the general public are understandable given the way the financial industry played fast and loose with the system, reaping fantastic quick rewards by ignoring basic rules. For most of us, the word bonus meant a payment for good service, but that definition seems outdated, as AIG handed out some $165 million to top executives to make sure they did not leave during a time of upheaval. Yet it was some of these same folk who oversaw the credit-default swaps that brought AIG to its present state of collapse.
It turns out that nearly all economic bubbles depend to some extent on enchantment. What begins as charm eventually turns into deceit. Bernie Madoff pulled off the greatest Ponzi Scheme of all time, beguiling hundreds of smart people and institutions into giving him their funds. What began as a fantastic investment opportunity turned out to be truly fantastical, in the sense that it was fanciful, unrealistic and foolish. Opportunity turned into curse.
|Victims applaud as Bernard Madoff is jailed after pleading guilty
Madoff apologizes to investors in multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme
By Walter Hamilton and Michael Muskal | Tribune Newspapers
March 13, 2009
NEW YORK A chastened Bernard Madoff was taken to jail Thursday after pleading guilty to running a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
Madoff, whose charm and promises of steady riches propelled him through social circles that included Hollywood celebrities and Nobel Prize winners, admitted that he had bilked his one-time friends out of tens of billions of dollars.
As Joe Nocera reported in the March 13, 2009 New York Times, "Madoff Had Accomplices: His Victims:"
- At a panel a month ago, put together by Portfolio magazine, Mr. Wiesel expressed, better than Ive ever heard it, why people gave Mr. Madoff their money. I remember that it was a myth that he created around him, Mr. Wiesel said, that everything was so special, so unique, that it had to be secret. It was like a mystical mythology that nobody could understand. Mr. Wiesel added: He gave the impression that maybe 100 people belonged to the club. Now we know thousands of them were cheated by him.
So much of life is vague and confusing, that it is difficult to grasp reality with much certainty or confidence. Reality is slippery at best. Do we hand over our fates to charismatic (snake) charmers like Madoff, or do we learn to ask tough questions, perform due diligence and acquire the vocabulary to match the challenge of making meaning when meaning is elusive?
"He is a real charmer!"
"He tells stories."
"His investment plan was a myth."
Taken literally, the words charmer, stories and myth are relatively harmless, but in the current context, they are heavily laced with harmful connotations.
Managing ambiguity requires a thinking palette with more than a few basic colors and meanings. Traditional blue, red, and green are insufficient. To comprehend different shades and hues of meaning, we must be able to perceive distinctions of meaning as subtle as the palette provided by Adobe with the software program employed to compose this article. GoLive offers 141 colors. Some 18 of these contain the word blue in their names.
As we saw earlier in this article, a word like enchant can take on many shades of meaning as we move from literal to figurative. The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus lists related words for enchantment in its thesaurus ranging from bliss, ecstasy, heaven, rapture, and joy on the one hand to magic, witchcraft, sorcery, wizardry, necromancy, charms, spells, incantations, and mojo on the other hand.
The Visual Thesaurus enables us to expand our thinking palette, as will other thesaurus sites such as Thesaurus.com. This expansion gives us enhanced perception and thereby reduces our susceptibility to Ponzi schemes, myths and stories. We are less apt to be hoodwinked as we sharpen our vision and can see a "deeper shade of pale."
Project Zero at Harvard developed a program with Federal funding called "the Artful Thinking Program" which employs the thinking palette metaphor somewhat differently, as their palette has just six colors, each of which stands for a thinking disposition:
- Artful Thinking focuses on a set of six thinking dispositions that have special power for exploring works of art and other complex topics in the curriculum. They are: questioning & investigating, observing & describing, reasoning, exploring viewpoints, comparing & connecting, and finding complexity. Artful Thinking Final Report, November 2006 pp 8-9
In line with the theme of this article, one of the six thinking dispositions in the Artful Thinking Program is finding complexity. Strategies to support the development of these dispositions can be found in the Artful Thinking Final Report, November 2006 available in PDF at http://www.pz.harvard.edu/tc/Research/ArtfulThinkingFinalReport.pdf
Addendum - Orwell's 1984, Newspeak and This Article
A month after writing this article, I began to reread George Orwell's 1984 and found chilling passages in his book suggesting that narrowing the vocabulary available to the general public can limit the range and depth of their thinking and understanding, making them far more susceptible to totalitarian control, propaganda and appeals to emotion. These passages resonated all too deeply with the recent events in the United States as the government in 1984 maintains a condition of constant war as a way to control the public.
|"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten."
Orthodoxy and unquestioning loyalty is the order of the day in 1984, well served by thought control and a shrinking vocabulary.