Saturday, April 15, 2006

What's in a Word?

As regular readers are bound to discover, the creators of the IdeaPlay Institute (and theorists of ideaplay as a viable creativity-enhancing strategy for approaching problem statements) like words.

Take IdeaPlay for example. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary notes that an idea is (among other things), "a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations," "a standard of perfection,"or "a plan for action." Interestingly, a usage noted as archaic ("a visible representation of a conception") comes closest to the transformation we posit occurs when concepts are played with like toys, or demonstrated through performance (like in a play).

While writing a conference paper proposal recently, I had a colleague challenge a particular bit of wording that prompted the idea I eventually want to explore here. That bit of wording is captured in the description that Blake posted for this blog: "Inquiry is the root process of creativity and innovation." The heart of the challenge presented was that creativity, innovation, and invention are solely human domains, while inquiry can be observed in lower animals. Our conversation proceeded by my defining the trial-and-error approach that can be observed throughout nature as lacking a pre-formed mental postulate about the outcome of an experiment--exactly what I think that happens in the inquiry process when a person asks, "I wonder what would happen if..."

Perhaps that is another topic for another day. In the course of conversation, this colleague reminded me of the aphorism, "necessity is the mother of invention." My counter was that while the perception of a need might incubate, feed, and grow an is the flash of insight, the "aha" moment when a person realizes that some random bit of information floating around in their head might just be the puzzle pice that fits this problem, that provides the germ from which a full-blown concept can grow. Is inquiry, then, the father of invention?

I think that there is an interesting ancillary conversation to be had about the gender-centric baggage of the terminology we use to describe ideas. Take for example the word seminal. This, for better or worse, is the word we assign to those germinal ideas that grow not just single concepts, but entire fields of study. Sure, the idea is that the information presented is a seed that informs and expands others understanding. But, isn't an ova a seed as well? What would be the appropriate distinctive uses of seminal and ovaial? You might not think it's an interesting side journey, but as I mentioned before....we love words.

For those that want a take-away lesson, grab the nearest set of building toys you can find. At turns, build your idea of seminal and ovaial and take pictures. Send the pictures to me along with your explanation for your sculpture. We'll post your ideas in our Digital Sandbox at


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