On Weirdness

I have never been a fan of the word “weird” and its various synonyms. Not out of some sort David Foster Wallace-like concern or snoot-anger about The Way a Word Should Be Used. I’m no prescriptivist on language. But rather, my concern is just a general grievance about better and worse ways to use language.

When we use the word “weird,” there is almost always a better way to convey what we’re trying to say.

The most common way in which “weird” is used is as a synonym for unusual. So, “not usual.” Or, stated another way, weird is a catch-all adjective that describes, “stuff I don’t have a way to describe with my normal vocabulary.” For all the usual stuff, we have affirmative adjectives to describe what we’re thinking. For the rest, we have “weird.” It’s the adjective for “the unusual stuff.”

This is all is fine and good, but most of the time when we use the word “weird,” we don’t use it that way. We reify it. We use as if it has its own quiddity, its own thingness.

Imagine a yellow bicycle. When you think of a yellow bicycle, we can debate whether what you think about is the same thing that I think about. And we can debate whether the “qualia” in my consciousness is the same as that in your consciousness. We can debate how the color spectrum relates if at all to our experience of the color yellow. There is, of course, an inherent vagueness to all language. But outside of philosophical discussions, most non-color-blind people don’t have great difficulty distinguishing between yellow and purple bicycles. If there are two bicycles and one is yellow and the other is purple, and you are asked to pick out the yellow one, you’ll come back with right bike (unless you’re a joker or a jerk).

Now, imagine a weirdly-colored bicycle. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s unlikely to be anything like what I’m thinking. And if there’s a row of bicycles lined up, your odds of picking out the bike I’m thinking probably aren’t great.

If you call something a weirdly-colored bicycle, you’re probably going to have to do more describing before anyone knows what you’re talking about. Because “weird” only tells us that it’s not standard. If we want to know what the thing affirmatively is, we’ll need more information.

When we call a banana bike “yellow,” we are affirmatively trying to describe a particular phenomenon, subject to the inevitable constraints and imperfections of language. Weirdness, on the other hand, is just a filler word for our inability to find a better adjective. Out of context, weirdness means nothing at all. Even in context, it rarely means much either, except “outside the range of normal for the person describing the thing.”

Calling something weird is just another way of saying, “This is unusual.” It suggests some non-standard characteristics, but not much else. But unlike the word unusual, which obviously connotes the fact that it is only useful as contrast to what is usual, weird leaves us thinking we’re done with our description. And we’re not, really.

“Weird” only has value for describing what something is not. So then, when we use it to affirmatively describe what something is, we should probably use another adjective to convey what we are trying to say.