Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Words, words, words

I enjoyed reading this article in Jacobin on the various meanings and purposes of work in our culture. (HT yet again to Mike the Mad Biologist.) Author Peter Frase argues, correctly in my view, that the word "work" can mean various combinations of things, and that
much needless misunderstanding and confusion is occasioned when people fail to parse its various senses:
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.
These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear separately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.
Frase goes on to give examples of the categories in his eightfold typology, and wraps up by suggesting that if we were clearer about the various senses of "work," it would be easier to make better decision about how it is allocated and compensated. Not sure I agree with all his conclusions — they seem to presuppose a lot more societal good will than I think actually exists — but they're thought-provoking.

Frase's article made me think about the many words that, like "work," come stuffed with multiple meanings, words that people can use in different ways and which can be creatively exploited by partisans with an agenda. Many, perhaps most, political words are like this.

Some are abstract and necessarily require definition and interpretation: democracy, freedom, equality, justice and so on. Those words are never going to have nice, sharp edges. What I find more curious, though, are words that have an esoteric and an exoteric meaning: one for the cognoscenti, another for the multitudes.

The word "unemployment" is like this to a modest extent. To the layman, anyone out of work who wants it is unemployed. The official unemployment rate, however, only counts people actively looking for work. Get so unemployed that you give up looking, and you drop off the rolls.* Thus arises the odd situation that the unemployment rate sometimes goes up when the labor market improves, as people who had given up on finding work start looking again.

"Small business" is another example. Before doing much business journalism, I thought small businesses were mom-and-pop affairs — dry cleaners, flower shops, restaurants and the like, places with maybe a dozen employees tops. Silly me. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, depending on the sector you're in, you can have up to 1,500 employees and still count as a small business. Alternatively, you can have up to $35.5 million in revenue, or $500 million in assets if you're in the financial field. That's a lot of pressed shirts or peonies.

I used to think of these words as "complex simples," and imagine that one could construct a theory of them. Complex simples are different from jargon, and they're different from deliberately crafted doublespeak, such as "enhanced interrogation" or "rightsizing." They're some of the most interesting words around. ("Work" is one of the best complex simples. Another good one is "money.")

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty famously states, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." Getting to define words — in particular, getting to specify esoteric definitions for vernacular words that everyone thinks they understand — is an underappreciated means to power.

 *You become a "discouraged worker," which means you get counted in the U4 rate, but not the U3 rate. U3 is what gets reported in the media every month.

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