Strong Words

You are who and what you are. But what about the rest of reality?
More Happy Rock Way observations about how people work life and vice versa.

Alfred Korzybski began/founded the discipline called General Semantics in the 1920’s. As I first read it there is a founding statement and everything else spins out from that.

“The map is not the territory.”

People have a construct of the world in their heads, a map, if you will, that they use to guide them through life. This map, any map, really, is not the actual world. A map is just a set of symbols that helps us navigate. How well the map works depends on how well the map predicts what we will find when we use it. That seems simple enough, on the surface.  But it has deep implications.

I accidentally discovered General Semantics when I read a science fiction book called “The World of Null A” by A. E. Van Vogt. It is an  OK book – good reading if you really, really like science fiction. In my humble opinion it does not approach any kind of literary ideal. But it led me, an always curious person, to investigate further into “Null A” which led me to General Semantics, which is really not classical semantics. This led to the work of writers like S. I. Hayakawa,  a noted general semanticist.  It seems like his message was well-received during his life. He died in 1992.  In today’s political climate we have raised the misuse of language to an art form and you will understand this if you read Hayakawa’s essays.

Now, I am not sure you needed to know all of that to get the rest of this post, but I like for people to know the basis of my fundamental ideas. This idea of a cognitive map can be very useful to us in understanding our lives and in dealing with other people.  It can help us understand how we build our own map of the world.  It can explain how our ability to use language effectively can improve our understanding that world.   It can help us be more effective in our lives.  It can sometimes help us help others. In my humble opinion, many good therapists actually help people re-draw their inner map into one that helps them function in the world. When Dr. Phil asks, “How’s that working out for you?” he is pointing out that things are not working out. And sometimes they are not working out because the person needs a new map.

I have been intentionally working on my map ever since. Anyone that knew me when I was growing up knows that my map needed a lot of work.  That is an understatement.

Which finally brings me closer to the point of this post. A person’s choice of profession or field of study has a lot to do with how they construct their inner map. To an economist, for instance, everything is economics. The character Perchik, in Fiddler on the Roof, was an economist, seemingly a Marxist.   When he proposes marriage, he phrases it in economic terms. To a lawyer, everything is law. Jazz musician, are often ready to improvise. Politicians view thing as politics. Shakespeare said, “All the world” was a stage. To an actor or playwright, that rings true.

In my post, “The Roller Coaster Life Club” I reference the idea that people tend to represent life (make their map) using pictures, sounds, and feelings. And how they use these things influences how they live.  Much of this is hardwired, but it can be tweaked with some intelligent effort. Another way that we make our map has to do with how we use language. According to Null A (General Semantics),  we can be led astray by logical generalities that work fairly well in things like plane geometry.  Generalities don’t work with groups of people or situations.  Generalities spring from words that require an all or nothing approach.   Is a person good?  All good?  All bad?  Human beings are a mixture of both.    Many of the old western movies had heroic cowboys (who often sang) who were 100% good and right.  If you weren’t sure, they wore a white hat and rode a palomino horse.  I’m sure you can guess the clothing choices of the Western-Movie bad guys who   were “rotten to the core”  These characters were not based on real people, obviously.   One of my favorite films most people haven’t seen is Rustlers Rhapsody.  It has a lot of fun with those old stereotypes.

I usually do not explain, or perhaps attempt to explain all of this. I just talk about the danger of “strong words.” The danger of strong words is that they are almost always incorrect. I say “almost always” because “always” is a strong word. Once a strong word enters the verbal equation the ability for a person to engage in quality thinking is seriously curtailed.  But perhaps if you understand this post you will be more likely to use this information in a positive manner instead of reading it and moving on unchallenged and unchanged.  That’s why I am writing.    You can take it from here.

Here, finally is a list of Strong Words. You may find other words or phrases that function in the same manner. Be on the lookout!

No one

There are others that can occur in strong phrases, phrases that have the same impact as strong words. Here are two examples:

I can’t do anything right. – Substitutes for “Nothing I do is right.”  It is anything plus a negative.

I failed as usual.  Substitutes for “I fail every time.”

If you come up with more feel free to comment.

Strong words must be used with care. Since they are so strong, they seem to be easily grasped by the human mind and thus integrated into the cognitive map. They are like mental concrete.   Part of our minds likes simple either/or evaluations.  Strong words associated with core beliefs can be very limiting. People talk about the awesome potential of the human mind. Incorrect use of the strong words or similar strong language can limit that potential.  If you are an atheist, then you realize that it is problematic when you work against yourself. If you believe your mind is a gift from God, then you know it is not good to treat your gifts poorly.  Regardless of your theology or philosophy there are good  reasons to be wary of strong words.

To see how easy it is to fall into this linguistic trap see if your mind easily completes any of these phrases for you.

All cheerleaders are______________
All jocks are ________________
When I play/sing/act/speak in front of people I always___________

My husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend always____________
All Democrats____________
All Republicans are____________
No one ever________________

I have intentionally avoided words about race, religion, ethnicity, or even stereotypes about the musicians found in the modern symphony orchestra.

NEVER USE STRONG WORDS! (Oh.. wait… hmmm)

There is also the implied use of a strong word.   For instance, remove the word “all” from  any of the statements above.  The “all” is still implied and still can lead to faulty thinking.

Just in case you haven’t made the connection on your own, human prejudice is based on generalizing language.  Please consider how this works.

It is possible that these words are correct at times.  We all have to deal with gravity.    But you can make significant improvement in your ability to deal with the challenges the world brings you if you will examine what you are saying when you use these words and make an effort to eliminate false and misleading generalities.

I have talked around a lot of issues in this post but  this edit needed.   We need to face something head on.    The use of strong words and they way they impact thinking is at the root of all manner of prejudice, with racism being the best/worst example.   This surely does not take a lot of explanation.  Placing all the people of a religion, race, or ethnic group into the same general category leads us astray.  And yes, this includes political parties.  Generalizing groups of people is not just bad thinking.  It is the foundation of a lot of evil in the world.  The sooner you start working towards treating people as individuals instead of general labels  the better.

If you would like to work your way out of generalization of people and the resulting prejudice and hate, you can start by memorizing the list of strong words and start asking yourself to consider people as individuals and not as someone.   This has positive benefits in so many areas of life.  Strong words limit your thinking.  Strong words cause errors in your internal map of reality.    Using strong words to describe yourself limits your life, sometimes drastically.  And needlessly.

True story:

I remember giving a trombone player a really hard time for saying, “when I get to that measure I always screw it up.”   I told him he needed to say something else.  He said, “but I always do…..”   I told him to say “I can play that.”  He said “But I can’t.”  I gave him a very stern look.   I said, I know you can play it.  You just haven’t learned how yet.”  We worked on the measure and figured out where the issues were..   Before he played it again to told him to say, “I can play all of this section.”   He started to say “but”…. and I gave him a very stern look.   (Non-verbal communication…)   He said it. “I can play all of this.”  And then he played it.

I could probably write a book about the issue of limiting language, and I may have more to say later.   I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks.


Revised to include implied words and the paragraph on human prejudice.
Revised, Re-edited, and Reblogged
And the Oxford comma are on purpose.
And again on 4-4-2023


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