Unlearning the Learning
One interesting way to judge an innovation’s impact is to examine its linguistic influence. It’s a bit like the ripples made by a pebble dropped into a pond, the force and scale of the ripples say something about the pebble. The Hoover brand not only became synonymous with vacuum cleaners in general but it is also a verb describing the act of using one. The brand Frigidaire gives us the noun for a domestic chiller and now everyone talks about getting an UBER as if cabs or taxis were a thing of the past. This linguistic phenomenon pervades national, cultural and socio-economic boundaries. These were the pre-internet memes that brought people together in bubbles of common parlance.
The word “telephone” is an interesting example because its use has sustained relatively intact over the course of its life but the thing it describes has become something entirely different. It has indeed relentlessly absorbed, Borg-like, a whole range of other devices into it’s expanding self; cameras, video-recorders, dictaphones, games consoles, personal computers, radios, compasses, maps and even the relatively short-lived phenomenon that was the SatNav nowadays is reduced to mere buttons and Apps on this thing we still insist on calling a phone.
What this process tells us is that we are able to unlearn and relearn the meaning of the things we have embraced and assimilated into our lives and the language evolves accordingly, in a state of constant fluidity.
Alander Graham-Bell would have great difficulty bridging the evolutionary gap between his invention and our modern-day use of the word that defined it.
It’s also worth quickly mentioning that he is reputed to have said, “I can imagine the day when every city in the world will have at least one telephone.” Even he could not have foreseen the ripples from his pebble becoming the digital tsunami that is today’s prevailing norm. Good ideas are not containable by structure, no more than feelings can said to be inside a person’s body. It’s the absence of constraints that give them that quality. They are defined by their relationships and connections within the living systems they inhabit.
The Naming of Ephemera
The point is, change can land and scale before there is nomenclature to steer its path into and through our everyday lives. So we shoe-horn the “newness” into the pre-existing language which more often than not contains older and more familiar ideas. We tell ourselves the new thing is just like the old familiar thing we already know. You see, our brain doesn’t really like this idea of “new” very much. It’s a form of uncertainty. And for a mind that has been trained to value stability and the familiar, uncertainty spells all kinds of trouble: fear of extinction, the unknown, exposure.
Our use of language to describe emotions follows a similar pattern. Of all the experiences humans have to navigate, emotions are perhaps the most ephemeral. And, it so happens, language and the ephemeral mix like oil and water. It makes sense when you think it about it; it’s a search for words to describe what is presently indescribable. Add the additional jeopardy of a misguided belief that our emotions originate from some mysterious well inside us and you get the sense of a double-whammy. As we search, we then find the thing being described is changing, seeping, disappearing like water through a crumbling sieve.
As a species, we would have been experiencing emotions long before we developed language to the level of sophistication we have today. We can only speculate about the relationship between our evolving grasp of language with the biological evolution of our physical body. However, there is compelling evidence that our brain and nervous system still function in terms of autonomous response much as they did in our early evolutionary existence. Especially when it concerns the base emotions related to survival; fear, safety, belonging, for example. This suggests there is something “non-lingual” about the way we’ve evolved to deal with our emotions.
Maybe what’s needed now is an understanding of how the things we feel and experience through the course of our lives have come to mean something else
Being able to talk about how we feel is essential to mental health and wellbeing in general. That at least is increasingly well understood. Less so, is the need for new structures and systems to have those conversations in a, let’s say, more 21st-century fashion.
We know that there are real benefits to talking therapies but these can be time-consuming and a fragile business in a fast-changing world. In any case, the juxtaposition of the words “talking therapy” points to the inherent problem of over-medicalisation. Currently, the old-world and new-world are in conflict and people are suffering as a result. If you’re thinking “which people?”, I’m referring to those who suffer most when systems fail; the disenfranchised inbetweeners.
There is also the socio-economic consideration in terms of the collective impact of feeling unsafe. This is reflected in a pattern of behaviour that has seen entire nations making unconscionable decisions. That is if they were fortunate enough to have had a say in the democratic process; with the worse case being more tyranny and suffering as the ruling elite make the decisions on their behalf.
So how do we name the unnamable? Perhaps it’s not so much new language that is required but new thinking and new sensibilities. The words will either follow or not as the case may be. We’re back to our friend, the humble telephone. Maybe what’s needed now is an understanding of how the things we feel and experience through the course of our lives quickly change. The lag between societal change and evolving language is greater and not fixed as before. So we can have a community that is located and connected through different time zones and geographies. We can choose our gender and identity. We can earn a living without having the tokenistic, stake-claiming photograph and pot-plant installed on a corporate desk somewhere. And perhaps most importantly, there are spaces open to us where we can explore our emotional wellness without being labelled, judged or categorised. If we do need words to name it, for the time being, we could start with “emotional literacy” and see where it takes us.