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Author Topic: The Importance of Being True To Language  (Read 4741 times)
thain
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« Topic Start: September 15, 2008, 02:01:45 pm »

After the "Familiars" thread got derailed into a discussion about language that Lyric and Randall had to stop before the derailing became a train-wreck, I was left actually interested in continuing the discussion.

I'm interested in keeping the discussion available to as many members as possible, which is why I went ahead and put the thread into a 101 forum.

My question is basically this: how important is it to you that you remain true to your language in the ideas of magic and even within your path?

To use a few examples from the "Familiars" thread, just because the term "Witch" used to mean someone who made a pact with the devil, does that mean you would not want to self-identify with that term today?  Just because the term "Familiar" used to imply a horrible, ugly creature gifted to a witch by the devil, does that mean that you are automatically barred from using your pretty black cat as your own familiar?

The simple fact is, language changes every day.  Another example thrown out in the "Familiars" thread was the word "Computer."  Less than a century ago, this referred to a person (or, in rare cases, a machine) who "computed" mathematical equations.  Now, it seems strange to think of a computer in any sense outside of that machine we all worship with the sacrifice of our carpal tunnels Cheesy.

On a related note, how important is it that academic language be used?  To the average person, Shakespeare is all too often "old English."  To the academic, Shakespeare is actually Modern English (Early Modern, if we want to get technical), and Old English is the stuff of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl (which, though my professors didn't use the term, I believe is more accurately called "Anglo-Saxon" rather than "Old English), while Chaucer's works comprise a lot of our Middle English body of work (along with Medieval passion plays and similar writings).  Consequently, we have two very different meanings for "old English," depending a lot on whether or not "Old" is capitalized.   

For myself, I like using academic language (it vindicates my four years of university Cheesy), and in my own workings, I tend to make an attempt to be as precise as possible in my language, but I'm perfectly fine carrying on conversations with others using, for lack of a better term, common language.

Granted, I'm also the kind of geek that, when still a Christian, stopped a worship service (which I was leading) and gave a congregation a mini-lecture on the significance of a song's using "Thee" to refer to the Christian deity rather than using "Ye" or "You."  For the non-language geeks, the significance is that the "Thee" construct is the "personal" second person pronoun, while the "ye" construct is the "formal" second person pronoun, much like "Tu" and "Usted" in Spanish, so using "Thee" to refer to a deity implies familiarity, whereas "ye" would imply an address made from a position of humility or respect, as from a commoner to a lord or king.

I invite anyone from the "Familiars" thread (or elsewhere) interested in continuing the discussion to chime in. Smiley
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« Reply #1: September 15, 2008, 02:09:47 pm »


I love language.  (surprise surprise, I'm a writer!)

I like playing with it, I like twisting it, I like seeing what forms it can take.

That said, I'm pretty much content with modern English.  I don't complain that words have changed meaning - I'm one of the awful people that does the twisting, or smushes words together to create words that have the meaning I want.  Language is a bright shiny toy that I use to create images and concepts in other people's minds.  It's a symbol set - sometimes a metasymbol set.

I'm not an academic, and I don't play one on TV.  I'm a writer - and not The Next Great American Writer, either.  I'm just someone that likes telling fun stories - and if they mean something to the reader, even better, but I'm not out to Change the World with my Fiction.  *gag*.  But language is - everything.  It's the symbol set that changes everything.  It allows the transfer of knowledge without direct contact.  It creates new worlds and new ideas, and destroys them or inverts them just as easily.

It's SO MUCH FUN!
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« Reply #2: September 15, 2008, 02:38:14 pm »

I don't complain that words have changed meaning - I'm one of the awful people that does the twisting, or smushes words together to create words that have the meaning I want.  Language is a bright shiny toy that I use to create images and concepts in other people's minds.  It's a symbol set - sometimes a metasymbol set.

That's actually a perfectly acceptable use of language in poetics, and I love making neologisms, too Cheesy.  I don't tend to do it as much as I used to, but it's always been great fun.

I like the idea of language as a symbol set, but I hate what the post-modernist literary movement has done to that idea (expressing that language, like all art, is incapable of actually communicating real truth or beauty). 

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It's SO MUCH FUN!

Absolutely Cheesy
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« Reply #3: September 15, 2008, 02:41:24 pm »



I'm an academic, and a teacher, so naturally, I do feel that academic terms are best, because they're the most precise.  When one is speaking in a context where precision is necessary, or simply useful, I try to use academic terminology, and explain it if speaking with people who might not be familiar with the term.   You lot *know* how I get on the usage of "myth," for example.  Cheesy  Each field, and that includes magic, has developed a specific set of terminology that most accurately conveys important ideas and concepts within that field, and it's important to learn those terms.  

However, precision is not of paramount importance in every single situation, such as casual conversation.  So while I care about academic language, I also care about not being an impolite jerk who derails conversations to rant about my pet issues.  I'm a professor, but I am not Professor to the World, Arbiter of All Language.  (I don't feel the need to go, "Well, actually, the meaning of myth is..." every time someone says something like "It's a myth that Sherlock Holmes ever said 'Elementary, my dear Watson.'"  They're not trying to apply the "false story" connotation to other people's sacred narratives, so the scholarly definition of myth isn't at stake, and is therefore irrelevant.  I *might* mention it in passing, depending on who I was talking to, but it all depends on the context.)  There are times when a thorough defining of all terms is necessary for the discussion to go forward, and there are times when it *isn't*.

And since language is, by its very nature, mutable and ever-changing, it is *entirely* possible that one could stop every. single. sentence. in its tracks to analyze the *precise* meaning of every single term used.  The literary-critical school of deconstruction is about *just that*:  the argument is that language is a self-contained system that only works because we agree it works; if we're able to communicate, it's because we all agree that these words mean this in this context.  And why and how do we agree?  It's a MASSIVELY important point to make about language.  But everyone *also* agrees that because of that shared knowledge base, we're *able* to have conversations about things *other* than language, because that's important too.  

Back to academic usage:  most of us academics can sometimes have a hard time turning off lecture mode, but the vast majority of us have better things to do then go around correcting other people's usage at every turn.  Also, graduate school is *designed* to cure you of that "I'm the smartest person in the room, LET ME ASSERT MY SUPERIORITY" crap; everyone in the room is at least as smart as you, and will call you on your bullshit.  Since most grad students are used to being the smartest in the room as undergrads, grad school is a massively humbling experience, and academics, being, y'know, smart, take it to heart.  That's why academic discourse functions the way it does, because everyone is aware that there is ALWAYS someone smarter and more knowledgeable than you.
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« Reply #4: September 15, 2008, 02:42:32 pm »

I like the idea of language as a symbol set, but I hate what the post-modernist literary movement has done to that idea (expressing that language, like all art, is incapable of actually communicating real truth or beauty).

Bah.  Why listen to them?

They're so busy naval-gazing they can't see reality anyway. Tongue

Symbols convey things - that's what they DO.  That's what they're FOR.  Deprivilizing one symbol set because everyone uses it in everyday life is just pointless.

(and claiming that symbols stand between us and the truth - they can, or they can guide us to it.  I defy anyone to find the truth in mathematics without using numbers!)
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« Reply #5: September 15, 2008, 02:44:57 pm »


I want to point up three areas I think it matters.

First, it is important that we be clear in communication with one another. This may be achieved by artificially restricting the meaning of particular words to their "traditional" meaning, or to a particular modern meaning, or by introducing jargon. As long as we all agree on the terms, this is acceptable. However, it can also be used as a way to bar the non-initiated from entry into the discussion, the way legal language can reserve discussion of crucially important societal debates to a small handful of initiates who "speak law." For the purposes of TC, the two extremes of this problem are 1) people who refuse to agree on a meaning for the purposes of the discussion, who insist on using words in ways nobody else is using them, or who flatly refuse to accept the outlines of the discussion and insist on responding to points nobody's making by deliberately and repeatedly misinterpreting words that are clear in the context of the discussion (even if artificially limited or in jargon); and 2) people who refuse to explain themselves where their manner of expression, whether from jargon or dense text or strange ideas, is unclear. Neither is conducive to communication.

Second, words DO carry connotative meaning in addition to denotative meaning. For example, "Woman" and "Chick" and "Lady" all have the same denotative meaning of "adult female," but very different connotative meanings with varying levels of respect. Understanding the connotative meanings of words can be important, and sometimes the historical meaning of a word is important to get that. It's particularly important when a connotative meaning of a word helps shape our thoughts of what we're applying the word to, as we discussed in the threat "The Wiccan Faith?" or whatever it was called. (Nutshell: Does using the word "faith" as synonymous with "religion" subtly force a normative Christian understanding of what a religion is on religions where "faith" is NOT synonymous with "religion"?)

For instance, when we cover Natural Law in my ethics classes, I point out to my students that when people say, "That's unnatural!" about homosexuality, they're making an unconscious appeal to Natural Law ideas buried in the culture. That's an important thing to know if you're trying to have a discussion on the topic!

Third, and this is something of an extension of my first point, but in a different direction, dealing with actual translation: I've been reading parts of the Talmud in English translation lately. Before the 20th century, the Talmud wasn't available in translation, because it was viewed as either you were smart enough and scholarly enough to learn Hebrew, or you simply weren't smart enough/hard-working enough to be allowed access to the text. Similarly, much instruction in classical languages in 18th and 19th-century universities appeals to the same idea -- either you're smart enough to learn the original language, or you're too dumb to access the text. (Also some of this behind translating and not translating the Bible.)

There is some truth behind this -- there's quite a lot of nuance in Hebrew (and Greek, and Latin) that doesn't come through in English. However, restricting texts to a scholarly elite is, well, elitist. Here, again, there has to be some middle ground between "Only those with the money, leisure time, and brains to learn a dead language get to read our holy book." and "Free holy books for everyone to interpret at will with no prior training or any context whatsoever!" (And really, Christianity has swung from one extreme, which nobody liked as it kept the common people from reading the Bible, to the other extreme, which nobody likes as it leads to insane fundies.)

I think when choosing language -- whether you're choosing specific words, choosing to employ jargon, choosing to artificially limit a definition for the purposes of a discussion, or choosing whether or not to use something in its original language -- one has to be aware of these tensions and aware of the implications of one's choice.

Not that any particular choice is "right" or "wrong," but that they all do have real consequences and real implications.
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« Reply #6: September 15, 2008, 02:46:04 pm »

I do feel that academic terms are best, because they're the most precise.

Do you feel the same way about lawyers using legal terms when drafting statutory law or issuing court decisions?
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« Reply #7: September 15, 2008, 03:01:12 pm »

You lot *know* how I get on the usage of "myth," for example.  Cheesy

I'm actually the same way, but I tend to use "myth" most around people who hear it as "false story," so I've started issuing disclaimers whenever I refer to myths Cheesy

Quote
Each field, and that includes magic, has developed a specific set of terminology that most accurately conveys important ideas and concepts within that field, and it's important to learn those terms. 

I think this is one of the areas that is most important to me.  Some of this falls under jargon, I suppose, but some of it falls under simple usage.  I remember a discussion on the old Beehive forum about whether or not Catholics worship Mary that was derailed by someone (I think it was the same guy who insisted that The Silmarillion was actually a history book about Atlantis) insisting that, because freedictionary.com's definition could be used to describe the veneration of Mary, Catholics really did worship her, and that we shouldn't give Catholics the right to reinterpret the language (hmmm...that actually sounds "familiar" Grin).

It's important for anyone to show respect for the specialized terminology within any discussion, but it's equally important to understand where "specialized" terminology ends and where common usage begins.

Quote
Since most grad students are used to being the smartest in the room as undergrads, grad school is a massively humbling experience, and academics, being, y'know, smart, take it to heart. 

Derailing my own thread...I want to go to grad school Sad.  I'm fully aware that there are plenty of people smarter than me, but I would love to be able to continue my education with higher-level discourse and training.
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« Reply #8: September 15, 2008, 04:28:07 pm »

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl (which, though my professors didn't use the term, I believe is more accurately called "Anglo-Saxon" rather than "Old English), while Chaucer's works comprise a lot of our Middle English body of work

My professors (for my Medieval/Renaissance degree) generally approached Gawain and Pearl as Middle English - but just as a dialect that didn't survive into the modern day, unlike Chaucer, who did. They're not that far apart chronologically, either - the authors are contemporary, at least. (So are Gower and Langland). It's almost possible to read Gawain if you squint a lot and know your German and Latin root words, which is not so  true of Beowulf or some of the other extant Old English texts.

In terms of my own use:

- I try hard to be precise - but that's a hard thing when you're dealing with language changing through time *and* uses being standard within a particular community, but non-standard outside it. (Like many of the terms we use within Paganism: witch, Pagan, queer, casting, circling, riding, Sabbat, Esbat, Drawing Down, coven, etc. all have some different uses, and many of those terms are used in other ways outside the specific Pagan traditions.

- So, more than anything else, I try to be aware. For example, we're in the middle of shifting our names for Sabbats for the new coven, because none of what we're doing is Celtic (or even British Isles) focused, and it seems more and more weird to use the Celtic names. (So, for example, the upcoming fall equinox will be Harvest Home, not Mabon.)

- But this is a personal quirk, and I don't expect everyone to agree with me. Out in public, I'm still going to respond to "What are you doing for Mabon?" with "Well, what we're doing is X" rather than a big long digression on how Mabon is a recent name addition anyway, and what it means. (Because, really. I have a blog I can explain myself in, or rant in, whichever seems appropriate. No reason to get a  well-meant conversational thread totally off track if that's not the focus.) I might throw a line in about "We've moved to calling it Harvest Home because we're non-Celtic in focus" but that'd be it.

- With students, one of their first reading assignments is a discussion of various terms and terminology - based on connotation, not denotation (i.e. how they will probably see these terms used broadly in the mainstream Pagan community, and specifically, our local area, and then - where we do something different - what we do and why.)

So, for example, there's a pretty lengthy discussion of all the things that people use the term Wicca to refer to, followed by why I don't generally use it to describe what we do without some modifiers. And a discussion of other terms like "witch" and "Sabbat" and where some of the other terms originating in the witch hunt era appear to come from, and how they've been claimed by the community since then.

I think this is incredibly important because insisting on pure precision (even if I could figure out how to do that, which is not always simple) would leave students unable to talk with others in the broader community, and that's not good. At the same time, just using standard community uses where they're imprecise without commentary drives me batty. I think our approach is a healthy compromise, and it gives students information to make informed choices for their own use. 

- But, the most complicated part: a lot of what I do (and want to talk about) religiously does not have easy, well-defined terms in English. Want to talk about ritual possession? 'Riding' as a term comes out of the Afro-Carribean paths: it's a neologism in our context. On the other hand, it's one that's pretty evocative and easy to explain so you can get onto the rest of the conversation without constantly stopping to re-explain what you mean. Ditto terms like 'casting a circle' or 'Drawing down the moon' or even 'working magic'.

While I enjoy wrangling about etymology and historical word use, I don't want to let that get in the way of actually doing what I am called to do - or of talking about it, when appropriate. And that means coming up with some ways to be understood and understandable. 
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« Reply #9: September 15, 2008, 05:24:07 pm »



I have two dearly held but competing viewpoints that I try to keep from warring in my head in situations like the recent one.

One is 'if others can understand the words coming out of your mouth, then you're doing it right'.  This is the side of me that views language as a tool for communication.  If communication ensues, then the tool has been used properly.

Nobody in that thread had any trouble understanding the question or the responses.  Many of us are aware of more precise or technical meanings for those terms, but that awareness did not impede communication.  In fact, if somebody had posted (politely) 'oh, I see familiars the way they were originally described, nasty, smelly demons in animal form.  Why do you even want one?' the thread drift to terminology would still have happened.  The OP would/might have been surprised at this view but the thread would not have been derailed.

The thing is, in my version of the 'challenge' post, there is no implication that the terms as they were used were wrong, willfully or through ignorance, but that they were simply not consistent with their historical roots.  Words change, develop new meanings and new connotations, and then more connotations develop from them.  Sometimes the opposite happens, and old connotations drop without being replaced by new.  A perfectly acceptable word in modern usage (like 'barber' Cheesy) may have had all kinds of implications in past usage that have since disappeared.

I think Nigel's example is apt here.  He knew of the word 'frap' being used to refer to corporeal punishment.  AL was able to source the word as meaning 'a nautical term used to describe rope bindings'.  This to me is entirely reasonable for language change tendencies.  After all, 'strap' as a noun is a length of material (among other things).  To 'strap' someone is to beat them with a strap, i.e. to punish them corporeally.  To 'frel' someone makes the same kind of sense.

And to this half of me, making sense is the point of it all.  For me, it was Linguistics courses that set that in solid rock.

However, the Anthropology courses put another rock in my head just as firmly.  'Thou shalt not take terms out of context.  Thou shalt not insert thine own terms, thine own perspective, or even thine own 'understanding' in place of terms that delineate another culture's or individuals terms, perspective, or understanding.  These are transgressions against the holy study ethic and will get thee banned from the fun wine and cheese parties and sent to the bowels (or rather heights) of Robart's for further study.'  This is the LAW.  This the whole of the LAW. (they lied about that part; there are a thousand corollaries.Cheesy)

I try to follow this, especially when talking about indigenous (especially living indigenous) beliefs.  I will cut corners a little if the culture is no longer extant, but even then if I know the correct word I will use it, and my knee will jerk a bit when others don't.  I don't generally stand on anyone's head about it  If you read my LJ and follow certain paths or practices you may get your feelings a bit hurt, but that is not general conversation.  It is not even debate, where rules of civility constrain me as well.

Basically, my dividing line is generally that if there is a living group that uses a word in one sense, then use it in that sense when referring to them, if not all the time.  All the time is better, to me, but that is only my personal opinion between the rocks in my head.

Again, in the recent case - there is no living group of Medieval Witches who have made themselves known or talked about their familiars.  I don't count fam-trad or 'natural' witches here, both because I don't believe in them except under certain narrowly defined circumstances, and because both the ones who may exist in a trad of two or three generations since the neo-pagan revival and the ones who claim to be 'born witch' tend to use those terms the same way they were used in the thread.  In this specific case I believe it is the historical usage which needs to be footnoted, not the modern one.

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wow - seven posts since I started and I haven't even previewed and fixed my typos yet!
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« Reply #10: September 15, 2008, 11:08:14 pm »

Do you feel the same way about lawyers using legal terms when drafting statutory law or issuing court decisions?

Not Catja, but, I think this is a yes and no.  Yesin that it is more precise and serves those who use it most often better than those of us who are "commoners".  No, in that, it makes it all that much harder for us "commoners" to understand what the laws even state if we can find them to read them.  I think a sort of middle ground approach is needed in this case.

Go ahead and put the laws and such into "legalese", for the sake of official documentation, but also, make papers that must be read and understood by "the rest of us", readable and understandable by us.  I can actually understand "legalese" fairly well, without any training in it, but that also means I'm the go to for anyone who knows me, or anyone who knows my hubby (he happens to be overly proud of my geekiness, something that I have discussed in another thread...), anytime anyone has a hard time understanding anything.  I don't mind helping out but... there is a much better solution, and what if I or people like me aren't around?  Do these poor people have to take the word of a complete stranger that "X document" says this, and not that?

On the other hand, back to the original topic.  I'm more of a grammar and spelling geek, than one into historical meanings.  I typically know the meanings of words that I come across, and if I don't I can usually figure it out from context (which is, I think, the main point to this whole conversation, using words in the context they are taken from, not going into extensive details about every single possible meaning the word has, had, or will have, unless in an actual academic discussion about the word in question).  If I'm still stumped, there are plenty of dictionaries available for me to use (or abuse...  Wink) as needed.

As for whether historical definitions should or should not be used, in some languages there might actually be a point to that.  Especially dead languages, in which the terms have basically been stagnant for hundreds of years (in effect we have an end point to determine accurate usage of terms).  With living languages, this becomes more or less a purely academic thing.  If you aren't interested in academics, then it will make no sense and have no meaning to you to get involved in. 

Then you have the "mash up" languages, such as English, where not only the words used, but the rules governing their usage, changes drastically from time to time (rather, it seems like a drastic change when you read pieces from different time periods).  If you think of it, with at least English (I'm not sure if there are any others in which this is quite so obvious), you have words whose roots are in almost every other language, dead or living, in the world.  An understanding of the roots of words can help lead us to a greater understanding of the evolution of our own language, but, again, outside of academic circles, there are few who are truly interested in pusuing this.

I think I'm starting to ramble now, so I'm going to leave it at that, and hope that someone somewhere actually understood what I was saying (or rather trying to say).
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« Reply #11: September 17, 2008, 11:49:52 am »

Do you feel the same way about lawyers using legal terms when drafting statutory law or issuing court decisions?

I hadn't even thought about law, lol.  Smiley  But as I said above, I do think context matters.  I do agree with you that academic or legal terms/jargon can sometimes be used as a gatekeeping move -- in fact, I talked about exactly that in the first chapter of my dissertation.  *g*  (In that case, I was talking about fandom studies -- fannish jargon is usually *more* precise than academic jargon, when talking about fandom; it frustrates me when academics insist on academic terms, and only academic terms, when fannish terms already *exist* for the concepts, and are more accurate descriptions then the academic terms.  Since fandom is not populated solely by academics, I feel fandom studies academics do have a responsibility to not engage in gatekeeping moves if they can avoid it.) 

What I should have said above was that I think in many cases, academic language is more precise -- but not necessarily always, and of course there are times when general comprehensibility is more important than absolute precision.  And for those times when the jargon is necessary, but comprehensibility is also a factor, there should be some move to explain the term.
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« Reply #12: September 17, 2008, 12:35:23 pm »


As a general thing, I'm actually anti-legalese (many lawyers are, we even have a movement!), but there are some things that just don't translate into regular words -- it takes me two darn pages of charts and words to explain "per stirpes" when I can't use the legal term.

But I did want to point up some more complexity to the discussion. Especially since law is ALWAYS an endeavor for the public and for public consumption (and, moreover, the public is obligated to abide by the results) but it is ALSO a very technical field that sometimes DOES require complex legal language. I think (and in my experience) it's a little easier in academia to make the "code switch" between academic language and general language than it is in law -- and it's not nearly so high-stakes, since nobody goes to jail if they use the wrong academic term. Cheesy
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« Reply #13: September 18, 2008, 02:52:07 pm »

I invite anyone from the "Familiars" thread (or elsewhere) interested in continuing the discussion to chime in. Smiley
I missed the party, but have something from that thread to get off my chest, and this seems an at-least-peripherally-appropriate place to do it:

So this is another example of the English language being twisted to mean something different to it's original meaning?  OK so what would the average American call the Anglo Saxon/Norse/Roman influenced language that I call Old English then?
Sufficiently Norse/Roman influenced to be worth specifying those influences?  I suspect I would call it Middle English, though ME would be better described in other ways.  The language I call "Old English" is also called "Anglo-Saxon"; while it picked up Norse and various other influences over the centuries, it's usually not considered necessary to mention them.  (Mind you, I'm not particularly average, I'm a humanities geek.)

Oof, that feels better.  I could not let that one go by (I tried).

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« Reply #14: September 18, 2008, 03:26:19 pm »

My question is basically this: how important is it to you that you remain true to your language in the ideas of magic and even within your path?
For general purposes, I - like others here - am all about effectiveness of communication.  I'll use a $12 word (what's often characterized as a "big" word, but quantifiable size is only loosely correlated) in preference to a fifty-cent one, if it provides more precision - and put it in the same sentence with colorful colloquialism.  (On rereading that sentence, I see that I demonstrated.)  I'll revive older meanings that are no longer the primary usage, apply words in new senses that seem suitable to the word's overall history, and occasionally syncretize or coin a word; I use figures of speech and wordplay liberally but judiciously - all in the name of being more closely understood.

In a more specifically magical context:  Words are power.  That we can use words in ways that facilitate (or impede, or direct to a specific end, or...) precise communication is the most potent magic I know - and a quintessential example of "causing change in accordance with the Will" (or at any rate small-w will).  Some folks would complain that that's too mundane, not esoteric/occult enough, to be what they'd count as magic - but I can cause a lot more change with my notion of magic than they can with theirs.

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I do so have a life.  I just live part of it online.
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My blog "If You Ain't Makin' Waves, You Ain't Kickin' Hard Enough", at Dreamwidth and LJ

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