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Clear, but difficult to detect.

Thinking about it too much, I’m confused on what it means to be “clear”. When someone says an action is a “clear” indication of some type of sentiment, they mean it as obvious or blatant. But the definition of “clear” that I intuitively set as my default means transparent, colorless, see-through. Counter-intuitively to me, the physical color of glass “clear” is based on the conceptual sharply distinct “clear” . Most probably, the obvious ease of conceptual perception aspect of “clear” begot the transparent, nothing-can-hide-behind-me “clear”.

But they have somewhat contradictory definitions. A clear eyeglass is darn near undetectable if not for the shiny glare (which isn’t part of the definition of clear). But a clear disrespect for the rules is blatant and abundantly easy to detect. We’ve established that the inability to hide things is the essence of “clear”, but it’s taken in opposite directions from there. A clear glass door is often undetectable to an oncoming walker, while at a subsequent doctor’s visit, the doc’s education is clearly detectable.

Something clear can be nearly invisible, but something that is clear is easily identified and digested. A clear object refers to the more undetectable, optically transparent “clear”, while a clear concept refers to the obvious and unmistakable “clear”. Both are noun forms, so it is not a difference of a noun vs. verb form, but the definition hinges on whether there is a physical material to the “clear” thing. Clear objects are harder to see than clouded objects, but clear ideas are easier to see than clouded ideas.

Problematically, physical forms can almost always be used in a non-physical sense. I can say “Your point is clear” and mean that it is almost undetectable and that its form is hard to make out. I can say “That apple is clear” and mean I see it in sharp, well-defined physical space. We have automatic mechanisms to deal with these situations and intuitively distinguish between the physical clear and the conceptual clear, even though they branch in different directions from the unhidden root.

Clear takes on a dual identity that goes mostly undetected when used in everyday speech. It’s clear that the definition of “clear” has a clear perception. Is a “clear advantage” one of obviousness or of undetectability? Depends on if it’s a clear physical or mental advantage?  What is clear can be oddly defined by its own negation. Whatever is not unclear is clear. If you don’t get it or if it has a solid color, it’s unclear. Easy. That lends weight to clarity having an empty quality, but when we think of a clear idea, it is hardly thought of as empty. However, “unclear” is a united antonym of both types of “clear” where as “colored” and “vague” are divergent. Clarity finds unity in that which is unclear.

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Posted February 24, 2010 by Wada in Linguistics

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