02 December, 2010

Meaning of Words

Do you believe in coincidence? At least according to Wikipedia, you should, because they are inevitable. The coincidence was that I just read two completely different texts complaining about the distortion in the meaning of some words.

But let's look at the word coincidence itself.
<GeekAlert> Did I mention I like defining stuff? Hopefully this is the only place where you will see me doing it </GeekAlert>
When approaching the problem etymologically you see that its meaning was of multiple (co) events happening (incidence) at the same time. The only place where it is still being used with a literal meaning is physics ( and there incidence has been translated as falling upon, making it a polysemantic word ). So where did the "unusual" part of every definition come from? My guess is that the meaning got distorted with the passage of time, gaining connotations from the context it was being used in most frequently. Synchronous would be another word to describe more than one event happening at the same (syn) time (chronous). But let's be serious, who uses that (except for geeks obviously)? So a theory of "coincidence" filling up a gap seems rather shaky.

Now whether you went through that boring paragraph or just skipped it, which might be just as well, let me reward you with a funny interlude. Hope you appreciate his humor, if not I'll sum up for you: he is bitching about the misuse of the word "epic", of epic fail fame, until it's not epic anymore, but trivial and thus useless.
When I say epic, I think Lord of the Rings, but that's just me. I guess you could consider the ocean, cosmos and other lengthy written works epic.

Ok, now that we have a little bit of color in place we can get to the serious part. C. S. Lewis talking about the meaning of the word "Christian" (it appears the spell-checker wants me to capitalize it :) so be it). But, sly fox that he is, he graciously avoids this word people are bound to be very opinionated about and goes on to talk about the word gentleman instead. This is done in the introduction to his book Mere Christianity, which I can't readily link to as it's not public domain ( just kidding, I found this link, not sure how long it will be valid for though ). So what is a gentleman? Originally it seems to have meant someone who had a coat of arms (although you may find a lot more detailed information in the usual place), so applying it to someone as a praise would be useless, as there are plenty of adjectives for that, I would favor chivalrous. Furthermore it shifts from saying something about the described to person to saying something about the speaker, namely that you admire him. Nowadays gentleman is often used to mean just man, having lost all its original meaning. So what about Christian? Well it should be used in the way it was meant to: someone who believes in the teachings of the apostles of Christ. nowadays that would be the church (any church will do, denominations are not really important, I am referring to Lewis's "mere" Christianity anyway).

Instead of a conclusion I will admit to having beaten around the bush when my real purpose is just that one phrase about what a Christian is as I plan on writing quite a bit about religion and how it plays nice with science. If you want to know about the meaning of a word just ask Wikipedia or Google ;)

BONUS 1 I know I promised not to just throw in random stuff anymore, but you can see how something called "Words" fits into this post, right? Well, I wanted to recommend this:

Just because the first part of it, about the man without words is good. How good? Well, it touched me in a soft spot in my soul. The same one that was previously tickled by WALL-E, coincidentally himself a non-speaking, yet strangely relatable character.

BONUS 2 Did you notice the link to the Birthday Paradox on wikipedia? If not, you should read about it. It is one of the simplest and most likely to encounter things that will blow your mind, by being completely unintuitive. A year has 365 days so how many people would you need to get into a room so that 2 share the same birthday?  The probability reaches 50% at 23 people, meaning you are more likely to have a collision than not to. And it gets to a staggering 99% with as little as 57 people. Doesn't that kind of make you regret all the math you forgot?

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