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Noah Smith

Economics Builds a Tower of Babel

A word can mean whatever you want it to mean.
Back when the whole world had one language.

Back when the whole world had one language.

Photographer: Archivio J. Lange/DeAgostini/Getty images

In Lewis Carroll’s "Through the Looking Glass," Humpty Dumpty proudly declares: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-- neither more nor less."  To which Alice replies: "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Humpty Dumpty could have been an economist. The modern economics profession made a collective decision, long ago, to develop a system of jargon in which words have multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings. Unfortunately, the general public’s reaction tends to be similar to that of poor Alice.