I was at my neighborhood Starbucks meeting for the first time a fellow academic from my local church to explore possibilities of forming a “small group”, “book club”, or whatever they are called these days on topics I raise in this blog. As I have posted in the past, I am interested in studying people’s daily use of words. Lo and behold, ordering my favorite drink “grande single shot blended with whip mocha”. Now I have learned this term from a San Francisco Starbucks almost 20 years ago, apparently this is the correct terminology from the original Seattle Pike Place Starbucks. I have used my terminology in Seattle and it worked. But I guess the barrista this morning either has not learned the mother Starbucks tongue and maybe there is a local Starbucks dialect developing in the outskirts of the Bay Area. I got a puzzled “HUH”? “Mocha frapuccino?” OK, I had to quickly shift my brain to everyday Northern Californian English to translate mother Starbucks as I learned it: “I want a large HOT mocha, with a 50/50 mix of full fat and non fat milk, only one shot of espresso instead of the default two, and whipped cream”. Suffice to say, this was a perfect segue to discuss words, meaning, language, and how we know what we know.
In my first attempt at blogging, I focused on my professional focus on “marketing and communications law”, specifically trademarks and copyrights. I guess it was just a matter of time that I posted on a brand (Disclaimer: the above famous mark is owned by Starbucks and nothing in this blog is meant to imply any association between me and the Starbucks organization). This is a perfect opportunity to post a photo I took at The Met. “Hey, I wonder if this is where Starbucks got its logo?” My fair use of the logo above is meant solely to comment on my visit today and compare with a sculpture that looks like the logo.
French Impressionist Edgar Degas is attributed to have said,
In art truth is suggested by false means.
I finished all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad last week. By Degas’ definition, Breaking Bad and my other favorite TV series, The Sopranos, is ART. There is much to say about these two series, and I did not intend to mention these except that tonight is the second time this week I read a reference to the poem Ozmandias (first, after watching Breaking Bad’s eponymous episode last week). Whether running into this poem twice in a week is by Providence or by an increased probability of running into this poem by watching or reading truth seeking works, I am encouraged to share it:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said—“ Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that the sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
Since I started this blog quoting the Gospel of John, I might as well segue into this inquiry with the beginning of John:
In the beginning was the Word… John 1:1 (ESV)
I quote this not for its philosophical or theological meanings at this time but instead for the common Merriam-Webster American English dictionary meaning of “word”, namely, “a sound or combination of sounds that has a meaning and is spoken or written.” See M-W.com. Yes, I understand the original verse was most likely written in Koine Greek, and the original Koine Greek word for “Word”, Logos, means much more than common “words.” However, I like the verse’s apparent implication that “words” are important bases to begin. I am aiming for as much clarity as I can muster in this inquiry; thus, for the sake of clarity, I will begin, like many of the statutory laws and contracts I read everyday, by defining the meanings of words most material to this inquiry. For the sake of a cohesive inquiry, I will primarily rely on the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (“M-W.com”) because it is easily accessible from all my electronic devices, it is ubiquitous, and I relied on its earlier hard copy versions to learn American English since grammar school. I am sure the substantive reasons for choosing M-W.com or another dictionary are broad and interesting subjects of inquiry, but I will save those for someone else or for a later date.
Let’s begin my defining “definition” with a painting I viewed last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This is my second attempt at blogging. I had a professional blog on legal issues, particularly trademark and copyrights, before social networking became ubiquitous. I am back to blogging because I admittedly cannot keep my comments brief. Once I start posting on a point, I always ask the question whether I am conveying what I mean to convey correctly. I guess social networking sites like Facebook (“FB”) or Twitter, by their very nature, are probably not a good venue for me.
So I will continue my previous rants on FB here. On November 1, 2013, I posted on FB:
“Feeling Philosophical this Friday: We use language to understand and communicate truth. Language evolves, morphs, and is extremely personal; therefore, by its nature, it is relative and imperfect. But this does not mean that the underlying truth it seeks to describe is imperfect, changeable, or relative.”
Why did I write this? It comes partially out of my frustration from the sloppy misuse and outright abuse of language in old and new media and even in day to day conversations. Granted, I know that there are people who are very skilled at manipulating language to convince others that what is false is true. Maybe I have not completely succumb to cynicism? I generally believe most people want to speak and hear the truth. In rereading my November post, I realized that I assumed all my FB friends know and agree on the meaning of truth. But is that really true? OK, I am getting circular, but I do not know of anyway to avoid that here. Somewhere in my memory, I recall a question by a famous historical figure: “What is truth?” While I can certainly pretend to be well versed on the scriptures of my professed faith, I have to admit I relied on Google and found this:
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” John 18 (ESV)
But I can rely on memory who said “the truth shall set you free”! (Also in the Gospel According to John).
John 18:33-18 is an apt passage to begin this inquiry in many levels. It appears to be a classic use of the Socratic Method, which is the primary method of my professional training. I also appreciate the symbolism of a secular Greco-Roman authority (Pilate) meets transcendent Hebrew God-man (Jesus). It’s also a cross-road (pun intended) where Western European thought and culture began.