Monday, February 05, 2007

Word of the Day: Ineffable

The Word Today is Ineffable. It's a handy word, in that it describes something that can't be described with words, but like all superlatives, it's subject to extreme abuse.

Merriam-Webster defines it as "incapable of being expressed in words," and "unspeakable" and "not to be uttered," as in a taboo.

Oxford defines it as "too great or extreme to be expressed in words" and "too sacred to be uttered."

The Wikipedia entry for ineffable uses this analogy to describe the word:
In Zen it is often said that (by analogy) the finger can point to the moon but is not the moon; likewise words and actions can point towards what is ineffable but cannot make another know it.
Ooh, this is veering dangerously close to post-structuralism.

To explain, I'll refer to the English literary critic David Lodge's hilarious satire of literary criticism, Small World. In the novel, one professor explains to a much less sophisticated professor that language is a constant series of deferred meanings:
To understand a message is to decode it. Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding. If you say something to me I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you.
That means that while we cannot use a word to define itself, we don't get any closer to a meaning by using other words. Language is a series of interconnected words that refer to each other, and have no ultimate meaning outside themselves. There is nothing, to use a popular example, uniquely feline about the word cat. It's just that we've all agreed that it stands in the for a set of a certain type of animal. At least in English.

What's so thrilling about post-structuralism is that everything becomes ineffable. As another of Lodge's characters in Small World says, "it's kind of exciting -- the last intellectual thrill left. Like sawing through the branch you're sitting on."

But we have to live as if words do have meanings, real meanings. We must, as Douglas Adams writes in the novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, "grapple with the ineffable, and see if we may not eff it after all."

In this spirit, ineffable is well-worn by a certain set quite different from the deconstructionists.

As any Google search will tell you, it appears on the heading of many a jocular website written by grown-up D&D fans with vocabularies bolstered by sci-fi and fantasy novels. It is from such folk you'll get heaping helping of grimoires, the abyss, and faeries. Not to mention an overload of Monty Python quotes, complete with well-practiced "English accent." It is all, to quote the blogger effingtheineffable, a "riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a blankie."

Eff that.

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