We’re publishing an original essay today by Dr. Sinéad Murphy, an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University and Daily Sceptic regular. She writes about how ‘health’ has become a plastic word, over-used and meaningless. Here is an extract:
In his book Plastic Words, Uwe Pörksen described how certain concepts come to acquire infinite flexibility and dominance, enveloping our powers of describing and understanding in their apparently profound ubiquity.
Plastic words are not technical words, Pörksen advised, which are often strictly limited to contexts and therefore of more or less restricted relevance. Plastic words are ordinary words, which have been taken from common parlance, refracted through one or other field of science, and returned to everyday talk with a new, broadened application and a new, somewhat ambiguous, authority.
Examples of plastic words are: “development”, “progress” and “communication”. Banal terms plucked from their historical parameters of use and conferred with a quasi-technicality that is not the less effective for being vague and accommodating.
Unlike jargon words, we can and do use plastic words freely and easily, Pörksen argues. We say that “progress in strategies of communication supports social development”, or that “development of communication styles is linked to progress”. In so saying, we have said very little – these statements do not mean anything, really. But we have also said very much, tapping into a seam of apparently scientific understanding that is sophisticated and worthy of being considered. We have given our talk a modern aura, and availed ourselves simultaneously of the unobjectionableness of common sense and the force of expertise.
Plastic words denote nothing, as Pörksen expresses it – the statement “progress in communication aids development” is nonsense. But plastic words are richly connotative. So much so that they suck the life from more specific, more nuanced, vernacular words, which are overshadowed by the apparent sophistication of plastic words and gradually fall out of favour.
There is an underbelly to using plastic words, however. The air of modern sophistication with which they infuse our descriptions is a thin one. Having revelled in its effect, we are bereft of any real appreciation of the stakes in whatever it is we have used them to describe, and must rely on professional analysis and advice for any substantial judgment. Using plastic words remakes us into clients of experts, Pörksen observes.
For this reason, the more we have recourse to plastic words, the less we are able to accurately describe and understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. Until at last we are at the mercy of expert analysis and advice, even for understanding events and negotiating situations that are quite concrete and personal.
Worth reading in full.