Users of Language: PITS and PAW

In this blog on the use of language I introduce two terms which may be useful in discussing a problem which was created for us in the last century and which continues to haunt me: namely, what is the relation between our language and our increasing mastery of the world we inhabit. By the latter I mean what we refer to as our scientific knowledge and our ability to adapt much of this knowledge to everyday use, i.e., technology.

The plumber joins metal pipes — it is his skill — but he did not invent the materials he uses or the methods for achieving his objective which is to weld two pipes without these springing a leak when fluids under high pressure pass through the pipes. We are all members of a community as well as members of different specialist groups who tend to speak their own patois, or at least use their own specialist terms and phrases.

Word cloud from an article on neuroplasticity published in the New York Times

Of course, as members of the community we share common problems and goals and we learn to speak about these with others without difficulties but without using specialist terms or expressions. Misunderstandings can be clarified, although agreements cannot be guaranteed. This makes us “persons in the street.” The phrase is old and well used, although it also appears as “the man in the street.” I’m not sure of its origins, but I heard it frequently during my graduate-student days when I attended meetings of philosophical societies and also participated in many lunchtime conversations over a beer in pubs in London. “The man in the street” referred to all of us in that we were “ordinary” — people stripped of our professional or worker’s outfits, “citizens” and “family members,” but not as artists, academics, public servants, office workers or street-pedlars, the kind of people who would show up at lunch-time in and around Charlotte Street and Soho, London.

The pubs on Hampstead Heath, on the other hand, were much more “exclusive” and over weekends became the stamping grounds of an intellectual crowd, not by “persons in the street.” The latter I shall baptize PITS (Persons In The Street). “Persons” is here used generically for all citizens, regardless of their sex, race, affiliation during work hours, their political or religious persuasion. It is an all-inclusive term.

Word cloud from a scientific article reporting research on an aspect of neuroplasticity

The contrast to PITS is ourselves during work hours, when we don our work-caps or professional hats. During this part of our day we tend to converse with others using specialized terms and phrases, sometimes in sentences which defy ordinary grammatical rules.

I suggest the acronym PAW, for “Professionals At Work.” “Professional” here refers to the notion that regardless of what one does during work hours, one adopts words and expressions which may be quite foreign to most PITS.

The majority of person in-the-street learn also to use an in-house language suited to their specific work environment. Thus nurses speak as comfortably in the vocabulary of hospitals as does the medical faculty. Admittedly, the latter — medics — may master additional terms which in turn depends on which speciality they practise.

The language of PITS is fluid, as dictionaries of everyday language like the Webster, demonstrate. Technical terms enter — and depart — at a staggering rate, which is something new to our social experience. It reflects the pace and rhythm of our technology dominated culture, which forces everyone to march to new tunes throughout our ever-longer lifetime. The strain on each individual can be terrific: cardiologists have their work cut out for them.

But it is not only the arrival and departure of new and old terms which troubles me and forces me to read wiki articles more often than anything else daily, but that terms with which we are already familiar change their meaning often throughout our lifetime. This applies to ordinary “in-the-street” language which includes the “received wisdom” from the past (much of it very dated and therefore quite false), but also the wisdom of more recent origin. These are issues I shall address in future blog writings. Please — stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *