Language is never totally truthful. That is because words are abstract; they generalize. So, singly, they categorize, and categories never fully represent reality. Words are necessary for communicating, and they are useful. Formulated into phrases and sentences, words are modified for greater precision. And, yet, any verbal statement, spoken or written, never fully expresses what is in the mind of its author, not to speak of her or his sentiment. We understand each other approximately, and that suffices by and large. But there are moments when we say in retort: “You got me wrong; that’s not what I meant at all.”
Words are approximations, and they are incapable of representing perceptions and emotions even remotely with any accuracy; they falsify reality and, therefore, can deceive us and mislead us. The clearest case in point is color. We say “red,” and every listener conjures up a different color. Even more specific names given to red — scarlet, crimson, ruby, garnet, strawberry, tomato, poppy, incarnadine, etc. — signify different colors for different minds. Even the same tint, under different light conditions, is perceived differently, as is also when the same tint is applied on differently textured surfaces. All words similarly lack precision.
Take any common noun, say, tree, grass, mountain, street, skyscraper, salad, face, window, etc., or any adjective like warm, sad, clear, solid, sandy, tall, gorgeous, hungry, etc.; they all lack specificity. They are all adequate in use and yet imprecise in relation to the concrete things or phenomena they purport to describe. Certainly, words are used in combination with other words which provide their context. When spoken rather written, they are moreover accompanied by other semiotic signs, such as vocal tones, interjections, and facial and bodily gestures. Still, even the most precise description conceivable of anything whatsoever is always open to interpretations, for it never replaces the experience of the reality it describes. What we say don’t always say what we really mean. We can never fathom from what someone says what’s in her or his mind. More or less, yes, but never totally.
But the wonders of the imprecision inherent in words are their capacity to suggest and evoke which impels us to write poetry or at least rhapsodize poetically as we all can even if we are not poets.
Similarly, and even more significantly, imprecision inherent in words is exactly what gives us rein to create figures of speech and exercise rhetoric as orators well know. A figure of speech, such as metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche, and irony, characteristically does not say what it says, understood literally. Taken literally, a hyperbole is a blatant lie. A mother tells her child: “I told you a hundred times; no, you can’t go out in the rain to play,” To this the child might rightly counter: “But, mom, you said only five times.” Hyperbole is possible precisely because words in their imprecision allow latitude in their meaning and use. If we say so-and-so is a fool, we know that he is though not really; it is true and untrue. A metaphor says at once what is and is not; speaking of a scorching heat wave, we are saying the heat feels like scorching which is saying that it does not scorch.