Amoeba Words

“What is an amoeba word?” Amoeba words include many of the words thrown around when people are talking philosophically. The philosopher-priest Ivan Illich explains:

I take the term from the work of Professor Uwe Pörksen of Freiburg, a linguist and medievalist. During the second part of the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that there are certain words in all modern languages which ought to be labelled in a special way when they are put into a dictionary. A dictionary will tell you that a certain word in its common meaning means this; in its antiquated meaning it means something else; when you combine it in a particular way, it becomes vulgar; in another sense it is technical. He came to a conclusion that one major category of word usage had been overlooked, and for it he created the term plastic words. A plastic word, an amoeba word, he found, is a term which has about twenty-five precise characteristics—Pörksen’s very German—and he doesn’t admit any word into the egregious category unless it fits all these twenty-five. A plastic word has powerful connotations. A person becomes important when he uses it: he bows to a profession which knows more about it than he does and he is convinced that he is making in some way a scientific statement. A plastic word is like a stone thrown into a conversation—it makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely. Usually, it’s a word which has always existed in the language but which has gone through a scientific laundry and then dropped back into ordinary language with a new connotation that it has something to do with what other people know and you can’t quite fathom. Pörksen puts sexuality, for instance, into the category of amoeba words, or crisis or information.

He has found these words in every language. There’s only a couple of dozen, and they’re always the same. When I came to Pörksen and said, “Uwe, I think I’ve found the worst of them, life,” he became very silent. For the first time in my life, I had the impression that he became angry with me, disappointed in me. He was offended. And it took about six months or mine months before he could speak about that issue again, because it is just unthinkable that something as precious and beautiful as life should act as an amoeba word. I came to the conclusion that, when I use the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit.”

Ivan Illich in Conversation, with David Cayley (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007), 253-254