OnWords: Organic

Apr 16, 2019

When you think about a word like “organic,” we think about how it’s seeded throughout the language.

Chemists might contend that “organic” refers to compounds containing a significant amount of carbon, the origin of which is irrelevant: a chemical is a chemical, after all, and it doesn’t matter if it came out of a laboratory or your back yard.

A regulator might look at “organic” as a set of parameters describing how a food is grown, tended, packaged, or prepared.

Crunchy hippy-types like me use the word “organic,” accurately or not, almost synonymously with words like “natural” or “eco-friendly,” assuming that the goods labeled thus are made with fewer pesticides or a less industrial approach to production.

Critics would likely point out that "organic” simply refers to things made in a less efficient way using outmoded technology.

And then there is the world of art, in which “organic” might refer to lines and forms we associate with things grown rather than constructed: fluid instead of rectilinear, with symmetries radiating from central points instead of regularities imposed by outside orders.

The point here is that we interact with language in relational ways, projecting what we want to see in the world and what we expect it to give us in return. Words demarcate our orientations, and their use is part of a dialectic, one, as we see above, often crossing contested ground.

It’s through this constant tilling that we nurture meaning into the world.

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