For a very long time I had believed (I have believed?) that there was some intrinsic value to language used well. An idea expressed clearly and well seemed more believable or persuasive or true or than one half-formed or blurted out incoherently. But this assumption of mine is only an assumption. It hasn’t been subject to cross-examination or logical analysis. I realize now that I’ve not tested it.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve done a number of different jobs for a national charity organization here. Actually, since “here” is the UK, I probably ought to say it’s an organisation. As some of the work has had to do with language, things like esses or zees or zeds have been given extra importance by people who assign value to things like that. And now I’ve spent time elbow-deep in the process of translating complex ideas about genetics, immunity, toxicity, radiation, recovery and all the Byzantine requirements of aid agencies and government departments into language suitable for a 12-year old.
Can you remember being 12? Not just the events or habits of that age, but the limits of your understanding? Thinking about it, I can recall believing that someday I would be 21, but that 21-year-old-me would be so essentially different from 12-year-old-me that I would be unknowable, and therefore essentially non-existent. I recall thinking that there was still enough time for NASA to design a newer, bigger space shuttle; so that it would not be impossible for me to become an astronaut because I was too tall, never mind my near-sightedness, lack of discipline or inability to excel at math or science. I recall not understanding why I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were and not knowing why or what to do about it. I recall not being very clear on the mysteries of females. But I don’t remember the specific limits of my ignorance. I never felt that things existed which would never be understandable. With a little effort, things, anything, would eventually become understandable.
All of which is to say I don’t recall being unable to understand terms like abdomen, intravenous or supplement.
And yet people writing about issues of sickness, health, care and support have to find a way to talk about those things without using the precise language I took, take, for granted.
This particular organisation has made the choice to offer help to everyone facing a certain illness. And presumably, in order to make that offer available to as many people as possible, they’ve chosen to use language that would be clear even to someone reading at the level of a 12 year old. As a part of that self-imposed decision to be understandable at a 12-year-old literacy level, it is necessary for people writing for this organisation to find simple explanations for the unknown inner workings of genes, the mysteries of illness, and the arbitrary governmental choices about who gets help and how much.
I realize now that what I know is shockingly limited. Given all the things that a person could master, the fields of my expertise are neither vast nor numerous. And the things I truly understand make an even smaller group. Sure, I know how to use a computer, but can I tell you how, on a level of actual function, a transistor functions?
No, and the internet didn’t really help. I need to study more basic physics to actually understand, as opposed to just repeating an explanation. But not knowing that doesn’t affect my ability to use things that rely on transistors. Not understanding how to get medical or financial help in the face of a life-threatening illness would be a different story.
I’m lucky, I suppose, that I’m not continually faced with and frustrated by things that I know I don’t understand. But would I recognize the limits of my understanding if I was faced with them? The odds are that I probably wouldn’t.
Anyway, two more bank envelope sketches. This month’s theme is high-contrast portraits of men with beards.