language and hidden meaning

last week i listened to a podcast with peter thiel and tyler cowen (link). in the q&a section at the end, peter says something that struck me about the hidden meaning we have in language:

“I’m skeptical of people who excessively invoke science as an incantation of sorts. When you use the word science it’s often a tell, like in poker, that you’re bluffing and that no science at all is going on. We have political science, we have social science. We don’t have physical science or chemical science. There are just physics and chemistry, there’s no debate. If you think about other areas where people use the word science excessively, I think those are areas that we should perhaps be a lot more skeptical of.”


hearing this made me think about other ways we use language to express hidden meanings. how do the words we use reflect deeply held – often unexamined – ideas about the world we live in?

one bit of language that i started thinking about is the words formed by negation: unconscious, unmake, unlucky, unwell. the flipside of each of these words is the default state: we are conscious, lucky, well by default. wellness, consciousness are our natural states of being.

that leads us to unhappiness.

the word “unhappy” implies a lack of happiness, that the happiness you already had was taken away. the poor are not “un-rich”, the healthy not “un-sick”.

we assume happiness is the default state for children. if a child is unhappy, you ask what’s wrong. why the change from your default? we don’t ask that about adults.

what does it mean that we exist in a culture whose language reflects happiness as a default state, yet for many happiness is something to be achieved, something taken? something that must be purchased, derived via fame, status, money or experiences. that celebrity, that athlete, that entrepreneur… they must be the happy ones.

our culture has deluded us into thinking that unhappiness is the default state, and we must achieve happiness somehow, at any price.