A picture doesn’t paint a thousand words


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“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still…In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?”  

George Orwell – 1984 

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith discovers that the Party is systematically engaged in the destruction of language. It is an act of control. As the Party carefully selects words for removal from spoken and written usage, it also removes those words from the domain of thought. When a society no longer uses a word, they no longer think about it, so the eradication of the word is complete. The death of a word, arguably, is no tragedy. Words do come and go. Meanings change over time as each language co-evolves with the human society that it serves. A word is just a collection of letters, that form phonemes and graphemes. Noises and squiggles. However, the function of a word is to act as a signifier, and we need signifiers. Without them, we are lost.  

A mundane example will suffice to illustrate the point. There are seven tools on my desk. They are objects of various shapes, sizes and colours. Clearly, they are all tools that serve distinct functions. I am working hard to meet a deadline and you are working with me. “Pass me the squeedlemook” I demand. And you have no idea what I’m talking about, and you have only a one in seven chance of passing me the right implement. The utility of language lays in our shared understanding of it. The word ‘banana’ can draw our joint attention to the yellow, curved and delicious fruit in question. We both know what I signify when I utter the word ‘banana’. And we both understand the more abstract concept that I allude to when I utter the word ‘infatuation’. Articulated speech allows us to communicate, cooperate, express, and teach.  

“The utility of language lays in our shared understanding of it.”

Words perform the miracle of manifesting human thoughts into the world, where they can be heard or read by other human beings. For this to work, we must agree on our definitions. Words have meanings. That is what words do. The postmodernist proclivity to problematise the definitions of words and introduce baffling new terminology with changeable definitions does nothing more than obfuscate communication. It’s sophistry: a cheap rhetorical trick deployed to make arguments unwinnable. We must agree on the meanings of words – on the concepts that they signify, or we are all damned to circular and semantic arguments that can never find an objective truth. That’s the way the postmodernists want it. You can’t ever be wrong about something if you are allowed to shift the definitions of your language on a whim. The trouble is, you can’t ever be right, either. We mustn’t allow this political ideology to infect our schools. It has already possessed our universities. 

As the Party of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare ruthlessly prunes vocabulary from the English language, they restrict the scope for expression. As fewer words are available to signify experiences and thoughts, nuance is lost, and human interaction becomes increasingly simplified and vague. Eventually, even the ability to think about complex ideas is lost. That’s totalitarian control. In contrast, the creation of language and the greater variety of words, all with subtle and gradated differences in their meanings, affords the speaker, writer or thinker greater precision of expression, and therefore greater clarity and concision. 

“A picture doesn’t paint a thousand words, because it lacks the precision of a thousand words.”

A picture doesn’t paint a thousand words, because it lacks the precision of a thousand words. It certainly might hold a thousand brush strokes or a thousand lines. It might even take a thousand words to accurately describe what is depicted in the image, but that’s not really the point. In works of art, the meaning is understood to be subjective. Like the inkblots in the psychologist’s Rorschach test, the work of art catalyses an individual and highly personal response. The viewer brings all their past experiences to the painting, photograph or sculpture, and they view the work of art through the lens of their own unique human experience. Therefore, the work of art does not have a fixed meaning. It is not a simple signifier – it is something more beautiful and complex than that. An abstract sculpture has as many interpretations as it does viewers, and every one of those interpretations is entirely valid. Some people want us to view words in the same way. English teachers do this a lot, and with good reason. It is certainly possible to interpret individual works of poetry, for example, in diverse ways. My colleagues and I have rather different ideas about what is going on in Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. The ambiguity and polysemy of that dramatic monologue is part of the beauty and complexity of English literature. However, beauty, ambiguity and complexity are of limited use when you are seeking clarity of communication – and that is certainly something we need as educators. A wider variety of words, all charged with the power of their own fixed and socially agreed upon definitions, are the basis for effective and nuanced communication.

Art is beautiful and it communicates sublime meaning beyond words, but that meaning is not the same as the carefully delineated meaning of a thousand words. 


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