My Favorite Word Yet
In Praise of Ambiguity
Yet is my new favorite word.
My former favorite word was obsequious because it sounds so complicated and intellectual that I figured I got smarter every time I used it. I’d throw it into conversations as often as possible just to up my conversational I.Q., like “I’ll have a latté with an obsequious amount of espresso,” or for even more syllables, “I can’t handle your obsequiousness with any measure of equanimity.”
But my new favorite word is much shorter (and, frankly, much easier to remember). Sure, I don’t sound smarter for using the word yet. But I do sound more honest.
Here’s the thing: yet provides a simple way for me to completely lie to someone without them, or even me, knowing it. It lets me commit to something outlandish, or even something very simple, with absolutely no idea of whether that thing is even possible, much less whether I have any intention of actually doing it.
- “I got your email but haven’t read it yet”
- “We’d love to meet you for dinner sometime, just haven’t found a free weekend yet!”
- “You’ll have to bring your several young children over sometime, but we haven’t toddler-proofed our house quite yet.”
There are other words that serve a similar purpose in a pinch (“Let’s get together soon!” or “That report is nearly ready!”), but nothing is as concise and perfect as yet (“I haven’t been to the gym yet”, “I haven’t scheduled my rehab visit yet”, “I haven’t started writing that book yet”).
What we really want to say, when someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do, is “Hell, no!” But we’re too polite. Or we want to be nice to our friends (just not that nice). Or we like our jobs. Or we’re just cowards. So we need words that mean the same thing, technically, but which seem to mean exactly the opposite.
So when I say, “I haven’t gotten to your spreadsheet yet,” what I’m really saying is “I haven’t seen it, probably won’t, and am not interested.” But what they’re hearing is, “I glanced over it and I’ll get back to it soon. Probably when I get back to my desk, even. Or at least by tonight.”
And technically, we’re both correct, because of math. Math has this concept called an “asymptote” (another word like obsequious that makes me feel smarter just for using it, except that the actual syllables sound so dumb. Between “ass” and “tote”, it’s just not a word that sounds highfalutin (which, by the way, is another excellent word, mostly because it sounds made up). Maybe mathematicians suck at the language thing, which explains why they ended up in Math instead of English.) An asymptote defines the limit that you’ll get to… eventually, where “eventually” means “as soon as you can count to infinity.”
For example, supposed there’s a target that you want to reach. Let’s say it’s a donut, so that we have something sufficiently motivating for our exercise, and because I’d like a donut. Suppose that you are ten feet from that donut. (For our non-U.S. readers, pretend I said, “approximately three meters” and bear with me; we don’t do metric in the U.S. We tried years ago, but not very hard and not very successfully). Now suppose you can advance to that donut by covering half the distance each time. The first step places you five feet away (metric readers: you’re on your own). The second step gets you to 2.5 feet from the donut. And so on. You’re obviously getting closer to the donut with every step, but if you keep moving only half the remaining distance, you’ll never actually reach it.
In this donut example, the asymptote is zero; it’s the value that you will eventually reach if you’re allowed to do this an infinite number of times. And I don’t know about you, but I’d have to stop the exercise and go find a bathroom long before infinity arrived, especially since I’d probably had coffee because I thought I was going to get a donut.
Yet is a grammatical asymptote. When you say “not yet”, you’re saying that you’re not doing that thing now, but that you will eventually. But that eventually may be an asymptotic limit. Sure, it could happen in five minutes. But it could also be an infinite number of days and meetings and emails away. So after infinity passes you’ll definitely get to it. But until then, it’ll remain not yet.
A better solution, in a more perfect world, would be to actually do some of these things that people are expecting me to do. And I will, I promise. Just not yet.