As the world becomes “flatter” we are all learning more and more about things we didn’t even know we knew.

Open wide!

Or are we?

A few years ago I read an article about wine-making and wine-tasting, which made some interesting points around the language the connoisseurs use to describe a wine’s “bouquet,” “nose,” and “finish.” Think: oaky, plump, buttery, dry, robust, smoky, huckleberry, citrus, soapy, corky, stony, sour, vanilla, vegetal, watery, woody, and so on.

Turns out we use common language.

And it is extremely accurate, if accurate is defined as a large, normalized group of individuals agreeing on meaning, quality, or some other measurable dimension.

The words we use are common, everyday.

After reading the article, I found that when I closed my eyes, sipped, and listened to my nose, throat, and palate, I really tasted the dark berries, ground pepper, and a hint of earth and dry dirt. Why didn’t I trust my palate before?

Or, more to the point: Why didn’t I trust my vocabulary?

Here’s an excellent quote from today’s New York Times that illustrates just how this works–this use of common language to reveal how something actually (or might actually) work:

“FOOD partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters.

Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense…

Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects…”

Cilantro (aka coriander).

A piece in the Economist recently put forward that we (Americans) are reading three times as much as we did two or three decades ago:

“The amount of reading people do, previously in decline because of television, has almost tripled since 1980, thanks to all the text on the Internet.”

Quantity is up, which sounds good. But what’s the quality of what we’re reading? And what’s the relevance?

Antioxidants is a fine example of a word and concept which have taken the Internet (and millions of our households and gym conversations) by storm. Watch this to see what I mean:

The problem is, the buzz created around this word by savvy marketeers diverts attention away from the absence of substantial content–i.e. What the hell is an antioxidant, and why should we care?

Which half of Welch’s marketing budget do you think antioxidants fall into–the half they knew worked or the other half?

Literature offers another example. It used to be that a book from any one of the major publishing houses would be solid, timely, and worth reading. But is the content we get from them today worth more than what we get online? Is the quality better? We pay for it, so shouldn’t it be better (more entertaining, more accurate, more complete, more persuasive, etc.)?

How many celebrity tell-all books do you plan to read in your spare time this year? Maybe this one by Andre Agassi (and his ghost), published by Knopf?

The writing about the big houses is on the wall: They’ve chosen to adopt the blockbuster business model and to pursue quantity sold versus the quality of the content.

Fair enough. If quantity is your business.

Metaphor. Now that’s a robust concept worth its weight in syllables. Watch how this unassuming trope reveals a very credible explanation (as much as any one in the world can probably peg it in a meaningful way) of the complex topic of Cilantro (from the same piece in today’s NYT article):

“Dr. Gottfried turned out to be a former cilantrophobe who could speak from personal experience. He said that the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.

The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, he explained, because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.

If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.”

Coming up in the next Dila View: Can laypeople really learn to understand all the complex things the “professionals” know just because laypeople can now read about them on the Internet?

Or, put another way:

Can (and WILL) the professionals figure out how to use language to communicate so the rest of us can understand?

© 2009 John Dila

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