Oceans and Clouds of Words

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wordle aca

This is a word cloud from a word ocean: the Affordable Care Act. The 150 most prevalent words are depicted though the index is excluded.

Word Clouds are pictorial representations of a document. Several applications for creating them are available as open-source software. Wordle is one. The process is creative in that the ‘artist’ selects all or part of an original document, and copy/pastes it into the word cloud, or painting, before selecting the font, shape, and colors. The number of words used can be altered. Numbers themselves can be excluded.Preferred phrases can be selected instead of only individual words; objectionable words or phrases can be excluded. That process can be continued and modified indefinitely.

The size of a word in the painting reflects its relative prevalence. Generally only nouns are used; what is the import of prevalence for ‘and,’a’, or pronouns?

Word clouds offer a quick visual impression of a document, even– or especially the one shown, which contains over Eleven Million Five Hundred and Eighty Five Thousand words– a number as irrational as i, guaranteeing interpretational conflict. It is so voluminous and mutable that at any one time the actual number of words is indefinable.

By comparison, the Gettysburg Address contains 270 words; the US constitution 4400 words, or 7818 if the first ten amendments are included. Even so, the constitution has required centuries of debate, and interpretation, including that of the Supreme Court, to determine what certain parts mean. The old Testament of the Bible contains about 590,000 words, the New Testament, 181,000, the Qur’an less than 80,000; yet, to this very moment, disagreement about the meaning of holy writ fuels dissent, hatred, prejudice, and war, being interpreted so as to justify much honored holy slavery, misogyny, homicide and genocide.

It this cyber-century, we seem to be at a point of logarithmic wordiness, where meaning and intent are obscure. When no one, and no thing– electronic or transcendent– can understand a piece of legislation like the ACA, different administrators of different sections of often conflicting documents can act according to their differing and inconstant intentions. A word cloud makes as much sense as the original document. Very little.

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