Yesterday’s post about guidelines also caused me to reflect on other non-words. By that I mean words that have a specific meaning when used in a specific context, but can also be used in a non-specific way, in a way that doesn’t commit the speaker to anything.
Goal is a textbook example of this. Used in relation to a specific context – a sports activity – a goal is the specific place that a team has to either attack or defend, lest their opponents manage to pass the ball through that space. If they do, they are said to have scored a goal, or earned a point. Fine. That makes sense. There’s no ambiguity about what a goal is that context. A goal is a goal. However, when people talk about having a goal, it has an altogether different meaning. It is used to denote a target at which to aim or a point to be reached or an amount of something to be raised. Also if that goal is to achieved by collective endeavour, so much the better. It doesn’t imply that anyone is committed to undertake anything in pursuit of that goal. Nor is there a sense of having failed should that goal not be achieved. The fact that there was a goal is the important thing, not that it wasn’t attained.
Same with ambition. You hear a lot of talk about an ambition to achieve something. Politicians use it all the time. An ambition is a good thing whether or not that ambition is ever translated into actual demonstrable results is another matter. But it is enough that the ambition was there, the intention to do the thing, regardless if the thing was done or not.
Like is another example of a word having a specific meaning, to be keen on something or generally having positive feelings toward that it. But free of that contextual underpinning, it means nothing at all. Apart from someone feeling that they’ve said the right thing that is, and uttered a socially accepted form of bullshit. An example might be someone saying ‘I’d like to do x’ or ‘I’d really like if it…’ It doesn’t commit them to doing x or indeed ever making any attempts to achieve x. The point is more that for the few seconds everyone feels good, the bullshitter and the person being bullshat. The x isn’t important here. It can be anything at all. The fact that someone would life’ to do something is. They probably won’t.
But they’d like to.
I myself have exploited this linguistic loophole for wholly self-serving needs. In a previous life one of my jobs involved dealing with, amongst other things people’s complaints. So I quickly learnt that by saying ‘I’d like to say sorry for x’ was a neat way of not saying sorry at all. Because they heard ‘sorry’ and I would say it with such an earnest and sorrowful look on my face, they never twigged that me saying I would like to do something wasn’t the same as me doing the thing. I wasn’t saying sorry, just that I would like to say it. I wasn’t. And I had no intention of doing so either. But that was bye the bye, and almost always did pass them by.
So in that context ‘like’ has as much meaning as ‘guidelines’ as does ‘ambition’ as does ‘goal’.
Not forgetting aspiration.