Precisely Imponderable

When I was studying for the verbal section of the GRE, I made hundreds of note cards of the words that the various prep books promised I would see on the test. I remember having stacks of them on top of my dresser in my already-suffocating New York apartment. Once I hit the 1,200 mark, I decided to go digital. I bought a software called iFlash and transcribed them all into digital flashcards.

I’ve kept adding to this little database. And in fact just this week I hit 2800 words. I have them grouped into three categories: GRE, Gems, and Misc. I rarely look at the GRE or the misc folders anymore, but I should. I often quiz myself on the “gems” file, though. These are the words I’ve come across in others’ writing and have longed to make my own. (A random assortment from this category: broadside, monkey’s wrench, nectar, amor fati, crufty, l’esprit de l’escalier, hoodwink). Of course, the whole collection is helpful because it is searchable. When I want a more exciting way of saying “exciting,” I find: agog, barnburner, dither, frisson, swivet.

I do this because I think lexical precision is one of my most pressing tasks as a researcher whose method consists mainly in arranging words on pieces of paper. I imagine myself getting invited back to my high school, asked to give a talk to students just like me ten years ago. “Being articulate is about having the right word,” I might say. “It could be cloth, or it could be voile, a trousseau, or layette.”

There is, of course, a problem here. And it turns out to be a pretty big one. The more precise we get, the less we communicate.

For example: In my writing about Alan Turing, a forebear of modern computing, I use the word “xenobiotic” to theorize how we can use a disability studies lens to understand his 1952 chemical castration by a British court for his homosexuality. This, to me, captures precisely the queer situation that I want to “crip”: a foreign substance was found in an environment where it was not naturally produced. And yet when I use this word with other people, it gets weird. This is not a word we can have consensus about. Having our Merriam Webster iPhone apps at the ready at all times could help, but this is not how it works at conferences. I might even venture that having to refer to a dictionary would be some kind of admission of weakness. I feel this way sometimes, anyway.

And yet: if I use another word, or some circuitous way of explaining what a “xenobiotic” situation is, I also feel something is lost. It’s not, well, precise. And so I’m left in a bind, one that implicates a necessary consideration of accessibility in scholarly production. If I assume others know the precise words I want to use, I am assuming something that might in fact hinder the communication I want to have. And yet, a rose by any other name would not, in fact, smell as sweet.

The other night I was telling some folks at the start of our first Think ‘n’ Drink that I was getting “wisty” as I transcribed some field notes from a summer project. I was reading my early notes and getting a bit sad that the project was over. I did not mean to say “wisty” because this makes no sense. I meant to say either “misty” or “wistful” and instead I said neither. I’m interpreting this now as a cautionary tale, in which I have myself started to lose track of where precision ends and imponderability begins.

I am sleuthing this semester, then, for examples that help illustrate this fine line between hazardous imponderability and lucid precision. And here’s the provocation: what if the best examples are not to be found in the academic press?

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Culture Lab @ ASC.

The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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