How Naming Shapes Our Conversations

At dinner the other day my Chinese dad brought up whether English had a term for the Chinese word 鲜. In fact, there is: umami. But it’s not a word common for English learners, and I think even native speakers may not use the word frequently or have encountered it at all, unless they have an interest in cooking.

The word itself, as you may be able to tell, is loaned from Japanese, which leads me to speculate that it wasn’t a concept that anglophones thought much of until more recent times.

But does that mean the taste didn’t exist? Presumably those taste buds were there the whole time. And yet, before I knew of the word umami I would kinda just round to the nearest concept, approximately “saltiness” or “savoriness”, and my understanding is that others do the same.

But that’s less than ideal.

Fish are very umami and salty, but a food doesn't have to be both

Discussing Colours That Don’t Exist

I’ve heard of people asking “How do you describe this new colour that doesn’t exist?” or “How do you describe a colour to a blind person?” And if you give it a try, it emerges as quite difficult, because without the ability to relate a colour to its nearest neighbour, there’s not much to talk about. You could describe the technicalities, like properties of the wavelength, but for me at least I couldn’t grok a concept in this fashion, much less have a conversation about it.

In a real-life scenario, did you know that the fruit “orange” existed before the word “orange”?1 Before Europeans encountered the vibrant yellow-red mix found in these fruits, they just called that colour “red” or variants of red.

Which is like, pretty crazy to think that in those time you couldn’t have your favourite colour as “orange”. You’d be like, “Yeah my favourite colour is red, but not the common red, I only like the lightish-yellow-red” and people would think you were a hipster or the medieval equivalent.

And recall those exercises as a child when your teacher would ask you to associate colours with feelings? You also couldn’t do it with “orange”, right? They’d be superseded by the more prominent concept, “red”.

Orange you glad you now know the origin story?

Enabling Conversations for Your Startup

But once we decided this concept of orange was important enough to have its own word (strengthened by the existence of the fruit), that opened an entirely new category of colour to discuss. And similarly, once we had the word for umami, we could discuss its presence in foods that weren’t just salty - for example, tomatoes, mushrooms, even bones. We could also talk about how much we liked it, how it works with other flavours, and so on.

And because my core interests lie in Silicon Valley and tech, I’m going to bring this all back as a learning for building your startup. Specifically, I think that these observations need to be kept in mind for your product toolkit. You can’t really discuss a thing until you’ve named it; By naming something, you draw lines around what is included in this concept and what’s excluded, and that means that the topic can more specifically and accurately be addressed and talked about.

At one extreme, your target audience may not even have thought of a particular concept until you give it a name and bring it to their attention.

For example, recently my teenage brother was having trouble focusing on doing the right work (i.e. putting music on YouTube) and I was helping him prioritize tasks for his to-do list, and he was complaining how he’d like to separate items into sub-item, and indicate progress on them, etc.

So I told him about Trello (actually I showed him my favourite alternative, Shortcut2), and that opened his eyes to a world of project management and productivity tooling, something he had never thought of to look into before. It was actually really cool to see him get excited about this, to the extent that later I saw him on a call showing his Shortcut board to a friend and explaining how it worked.

Or, as a more trendy example, consider the term “prompt engineering”. Before, we just talked about ways to get AI (i.e. ChatGPT) to do stuff, using increasingly verbose descriptions, at times even awkwardly talking past each other. But now, people write essays on the subject, best practices and tooling have been developed, and it’s a real thing. I mean, even if you don’t think “prompt engineering” is a thing, the term itself is. We’re talking about it.

Finally, I’ve realized that as names for things get used, they develop a lot of connotations. I think it’s valuable for us to recognize that a rebranding or clarification with a new word can “reclaim” certain concepts. For example, “AI” used to be associated with the failed attempts at expert systems3 until in we had our advancement in recent years with the label “machine learning” (which really is just applied statistics). Or as another example, “signed pointers” being labeled as “blockchain” or “NFTs” as a specific subset of blockchain functionality, for better or worse.

At the core, for those of us who understand the concepts, they’re one thing, but with the right labeling and relabeling, they can be something else, and that’s a very powerful option to have in your toolbelt. Keep it in mind.

AI - From trendy to something satirical to trendy again

Discuss on Hacker News

← Back to home