I like to think that the first word uttered by mankind – and perhaps the most instinctive – was used to indicate home. It must have sounded pretty strange of course, but without a doubt it had a definite meaning.
Home: a safe place to return to and where I am expecting you, which with its physical walls separates the certain from the uncertain, the ultimate port of call – unmistakable. Not a bad place to start out on the adventure of language.
Language has been developed to satisfy a precise need, that of imparting information. In order to be as logical as possible, it has to be precise and unequivocal – in other words its connotations as well as its rules have to be shared. In order to be understood, mankind has always felt the need to establish some sort of logical agreement, in the first instance with the people closest to him and then as the confines of his world gradually expanded, with others too.
It isn't speaking that comes natural to men, but the desire to relate to and communicate with others, in the same way as it is for every other living creature: just think of the howling of a wolf or the colours of a poisonous Amanita.
For your ancestors, talking was a way to refer to their surroundings and to describe them, an alternative to making cave paintings – definitely more practical, in fact, because one of the great merits of a conversation is that it can travel and can be conveyed easily.
The more a person begins to explore, think and discover, the more the frontiers of his world are extended. So, the confines of the code he uses to describe this world expand as a result. This is precisely how new words are born.
Returning to cave painting however, one of the most reliable theories is that the paintings and the engravings were propitiatory rituals too – though not only that. Their main aim was to depict something that they would have liked to see happen but hadn’t happened yet and so, didn’t exist yet.
So, from the beginning mankind felt the need to communicate about two things: on one hand, the world that surrounded him and on the other, the world that he was beginning to imagine.
When it comes to objective truth people prefer to find a middle ground as far as the situation permits, so as to avoid debating for days on end, as occurred in the case of the black-and-gold or blue-and-white dress – but, what was it in your opinion? - we are still light years away from understanding what prompts us from within. It appears that thousands of years’ worth of written and spoken words still haven’t been enough.
This is precisely why John Koening compiled the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which focuses on unresolved sadness. In other words, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to understand the reason for your sadness or decide whether it’s because you had a bad day, you didn’t sleep well or you’re just a bad person.
Koening’s words are new because they have been invented – like every word and language in existence. But they aren’t ridiculous: Koening has followed shared and coded grammatical and etymological rules, so his words can’t be considered mistakes and we have to see them as new words.
To use Paul Archer’s words, design answers a specific need.
Just like a word, an object attempts to fill a real gap, to improve the experience a person has of the world. And when its success is obvious, instinctively everyone will want to make it their own.
A light-bulb is a well designed object: it provides the same satisfaction as when you shout This is the word I was looking for!
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