Reading the Burke texts only emphasized how problematic words and definitions can be. Xing talked about the problems that develop when looking for translation and meaning across cultures and languages, but Burke pointed out that misunderstanding and varying meaning can exist within one language and culture. His discussion of “terministic screens” (45) reminded me of two tiny words that cause a constant source of trouble for me on a regular basis: “Cut” and “Trim”. I work as a hairdresser, and these two terms have such a range within them that they can invoke panic at their very mention if I’m not careful about just what terminology a client is using. For example; I ask, “How would you like your hair cut today?” I get a response like, “Oh I just want a trim.”
Either way, really, I’m cutting the hair, right? Only, some people think a “cut” is an entirely different hairstyle and a “trim” is just making what they already have slightly shorter. Then again, some people think a trim is ¼ inch off, while others think it’s 3 inches. What’s even funnier about the whole thing is when I ask them to “clarify what they mean”, since over the years I’ve learned that no two definitions of “trim” are the same for two people. Often times they look at me like, “Don’t you know what you’re doing? Don’t you know what a trim is?” as though I just started doing hair yesterday. The fact is that I’ve been doing hair for 10 years, and this experience has only taught me that no, I don’t know what a trim is.
I liked the way Burke put it when he wrote, “Not only does the nature of our terms affect the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than the other” (46). These two little words have the ability to direct attention considerably, depending on who I’m speaking to. One person may think I’m only going to take of ¼ inch of hair, another may think I’m about to shave their head. In addition, the problems that these terms can generate often do so with perfectly fluent speakers of English.
Thinking back to Xing and looking at Burke’s Logology or “words about words”(47) initially inspired me. I think that studying terms in this way would be extremely beneficial, but then again, what happens across languages with this technique? Even Xing’s considerable effort to make Ming Bian Xue mirror “rhetoric”, it is still not an exact reflection of what rhetoric is to Westerners. This makes me think of the word “saudade” in Portuguese, which has no direct translation into English as well. We can only come close. Even if you ask a native Portuguese speaker to define this term in their own language it is difficult. They just know what it means.
I imagine the same would be intensely problematic when trying to decipher some of our everyday sayings and slang. Even those of us that use them every day could never relate to a non-English speaker just what some of that stuff means. If there are no words to describe the word, then what do we do?