This image, supplied by Viking, shows the book jacket of 'The Stuff of Thought' by Steven Pinker. (AP Photo/Viking) - AP


Alot of the way we talk doesn't accurately reflect the real world, so a close look at the difference between talk and reality should tell us something about ourselves.

That's roughly the promise of "The Stuff of Thought," helpfully subtitled "Language as a Window Into Human Nature." It furnishes a lot of detailed analysis of ordinary American English but not much enlightenment for the neophyte about the kind of animals we are inside.

A degree in psychology or linguistics would probably help.

But the style of Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor who has written six books about words, can be amusing even when the ideas seem hard to grasp. For illustrations, he uses comic strips, odd proverbs and even former President Bill Clinton's testimony about the possible meanings of the word "is." He calls one chapter "Down the Rabbit Hole," an allusion to the way Alice got into Wonderland.

Another chapter, titled "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," does illustrate how we reveal ourselves in both religious and profane speech. He suggests that some "dirty words" have evolved from oaths and other expressions of religious faith as people have become increasingly secular.

"Incantations, spells, prayers, and curses are ways that people try to affect the world through words, and taboos and euphemisms are ways that people try NOT to affect it," he writes. "Even hard-headed materialists find themselves knocking wood after mentioning a hoped-for event, or inserting GOD FORBID after mentioning a feared one, perhaps for the same reason that Niels Bohr hung a horseshoe above his office door: I hear that it works even if you dont believe it."

Bohr, one of the 20th century's great physicists, won a Nobel prize for work on the structure of the atom.

Pinker cites a multibillion-dollar dispute to show how differing ideas of the meaning of a single word — "event" — can affect the practical world. The question: Was the destruction of the World Trade Center one event or two?

Larry Silverstein, leaseholder of the two buildings, had an insurance contract that entitled him to a maximum of $3.5 billion reimbursement for any event affecting them. His lawyers argued that there were two separate events in New York on Sept. 11, 2001: Two different planes struck two separate buildings at two different times; either plane might have missed; or the passengers on one or the other might have revolted, as they did aboard the plane that they made to crash in rural Pennsylvania instead of Washington, D.C.

Insurance company lawyers argued that there was only one event: Osama bin Laden's plot to terrorize the United States. A federal court ruled that Silverstein was entitled only to $3.5 billion. But last May, after millions of dollars in court costs and nearly six years of litigation, an agreed settlement awarded him an additional $2 billion to the about $2.34 billion he had already received .

The meaning we give to a single word — "learned" — can also affect the partisan debate over whether President Bush lied about Saddam Hussein's alleged attempt to buy nuclear material in Africa, Pinker suggests.

"When Bush said that the British government had 'learned' that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking ACTUALLY took place, not that the British government BELIEVED it did," the book says. "If he had reason to doubt it at the time — and the American intelligence community had made its skepticism known to his administration — the 16 words did contain a known untruth."

Pinker doesn't raise the possibility that such an untruth could have been a mistake — perhaps the result of a choice of words by a speech writer who didn't know about the skepticism of the intelligence community, and not corrected by a president who is not as precise about his vocabulary as the author of the book.

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