Words are slippery little things. Meanings can shift with the slightest alteration in modifier or tense or conjunction. Even writers who labor over every word choice can oftentimes compose sentences or whole paragraphs that end up far too open for interpretation. The spontaneity of the spoken word can create even greater confusion.

Take Don Imus’ most recent comments on his radio show. Here’s the interchange between Imus and sportscaster Warner Wolf as they discussed troubled NFL player Adam Jones:

“He’s been arrested six times since being drafted by Tennessee in 2005,” Wolf said.

“What color is he?” Imus asked.

“He’s African-American,” Wolf responded.

“Well, there you go,” Imus said. “Now we know.”

Blatantly racist, no? Actually, maybe not. Imus claims he wasn’t making a racist remark about African-Americans’ propensity to commit crimes but was instead supporting Jones by making the point that law enforcement authorities often wrongly target African-American men.

Can you know without a doubt whether Imus’ explanation is an obfuscation or the truth? I can’t. It’s impossible to know intent based on the words said. Imus didn’t clarify his meaning at the time he made the original statement so, now, any and all interpretations are possible. As such, Imus will likely get off the hook for this “shocker.”

Goes to show you. With words, specificity must be paramount or meaning will suffer.

Politics Imus and the Trouble with Words