What I Mean…

Image of a person speaking into a can with a string coming out of the bottom.

Articulate:

  1. uttered clearly in distinct syllables.
  2. capable of speech; not speechless.
  3. using language easily and fluently; having facility with words: an articulate speaker.
  4. expressed, formulated, or presented with clarity and effectiveness: an articulate thought.
  5. made clear, distinct, and precise in relation to other parts: an articulate form; an articulate shape; an articulate area.
  6. (of ideas, form, etc.) having a meaningful relation to other parts: an articulate image.
  7. having parts or distinct areas organized into a coherent or meaningfulwhole; unified: an articulate system of philosophy.

When I have used the word “articulate” to describe someone, I’ve always meant that they can get their point across clearly and in a logically constructed manner (see 4, 5, and 7 above). Often I use it as a term of admiration for someone who has helped clarify and simplify my own thoughts on a complex subject. Through their vision, I add new language to my lexicon.

I am listening to an old broadcast on the TED Radio Hour, Playing With Perceptions, and am being reminded that it can also mean pronunciation, diction, grammar, and a bunch of other things (see 1 and 2 above). More to the point, these additional meanings are often used as a subtext for situations loaded with bias. As in, “Gosh, I never expected [someone who looks like you] to be able to speak so well!” It’s a very backhanded compliment that reveals much more about the speaker than about the person being addressed.

Jamila Lyiscott, whose talk features in Part 4 of the episode, explains this other, perhaps more common, meaning above.

I hope I’ve never offended someone by calling them them articulate. It has never meant I had low expectations and, boom! you surprised me. It means I believe you are a smarter, better spoken than I am, quite possibly an expert on a subject, and I totally admire you for it.

Now that I’ve, once again, been reminded of other possible uses of this word, how to proceed? By making other word choices? Or maybe just by using a different form of the word: “You managed to articulate my feelings in such a brilliant, succinct fashion. I’d been struggling with a way to express my thoughts on the subject. I’m so glad you put this into words.”  Hmm. Maybe.

My use of the word may not, in the end, have been very articulate.

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