I have a confession to make. By all rights, it should get me fired.
For the last 25 years, in my writing, I have been using the adjectives “epistemological” and “ontological” interchangeably and without actually knowing what either means. Sure, I have looked them up, but their definitions are so gauzy and academic that they are meaningless to me, and forgettable. So I forget them. I don’t even go back to check anymore.
But here is the amazing thing: Not once in 25 years has anyone called me out on this. There has been not one phone call or online comment or letter to the editor pointing out that, philosophically, I have my head up my arse, which I obviously do. There is only one conclusion I can reach: No one else has any idea what these words mean, either.
Gene Weingarten on consensus ignorance.
I’ve seen this article posted around a few places and people basically have two reactions to it. The first is to laugh and say something along the lines of, “IKR? WTF are those words good for other than sounding pretentious? Ain’t English funny!” And the second is to make some ponderous announcement along the lines of, “It helps if you use them in a sentence”, then proceed to sprout off a bunch of example sentences that in no way whatsoever clarify the words’ meanings and, thus, end up proving exactly the point Weingarten was trying to make in the first place.
Like, let’s be clear, Weingarten literally won a Pulitzer for a piece in which he used the word “epistemological” in a context without knowing if that context was correct or not. Like, a Pulitzer, man!
So, yanno. Next time you get mocked on the internet for using a word without really knowing what it means? Remember you’re in good company.