Saturday, May 12, 2007

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Everyone knows that we can use words to name things that obviously don't exist, like square circles. But there are other examples that aren't so obvious. For example, you can't go to a nursery or garden center without seeing a section for "indoor plants." But except for plants that were developed in laboratories and can not survive outdoors, there really are no "indoor plants." All plants were originally outdoor plants, and it was only through some arbitrary system of classification that we decided to call them indoor plants.

Okay, maybe the system wasn't entirely arbitrary, but the classification rules aren't very clear to me. So I asked two friends of mine what made something an indoor plant. The first person said she thought the term applied to non-native plants, which sort of makes sense, except that a lot of non-native plants seem to do well outdoors. (And of course, since "non-native" is a relative term, "indoor plant" would by necessity also have to be a relative term.) My other friend said he thought it referred to plants that don't do too well in sunlight, so he speculated that indoor plants were plants that need lots of shade, such as plants that grow in forests and jungles. That's a pretty reasonable guess as well, I suppose, but some indoor plants need a lot of light, or else they'll die. (As a matter of fact, as far as I can tell, one of the differences between indoor and outdoor plants is that according to the labels, some indoor plants need "bright light" while some outdoor plants need "full sun.")

We may never solve the riddle of the indoor plant, so here's another example of something that doesn't really exist: The terminal illness. Sure, people die of illnesses all the time, which I suppose makes them terminal, but if you think about it, a terminal illness is just an illness for which there is currently no cure. In other words, it's not something inherent about the illness, it's something about the current state of the medical arts.

There are probably hundreds of other examples, but I can't think of any at the moment. One of the reasons they're so hard to think of is that we've heard the terms all our lives, so we just assume that these things exist. It's just one of the weird ways our belief-systems are shaped and molded. It may seem sort of innocuous, but perhaps it isn't. For example, there have been two major world wars in the last hundred years, which we refer to as "World War I" and "World War II." Those are convenient names, and a lot of people probably assume that when the next world war comes along, we'll call it "World War III." They're probably right about that, but that's not the problem. The problem is the assumption that another world war is inevitable, that it's just a matter of time. How many times have you heard the term "World War III"? I've probably heard it hundreds of times, which means that people have probably said it millions of times, which means that people are talking a lot about something that doesn't exist, never existed, and (if we're lucky) never will exist. But the more you talk about something as though it exists, the more legitimacy you give it as a concept. It happened with terminal illnesses and it happened with indoor plants, so I wouldn't be surprised if one day it happens with square circles as well.