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Words We Re-Learned at TED2015

9 Big Ideas that We'll Be Thinking About All Year


A few of us at Merriam-Webster were privileged to attend TED2015, where we enjoyed soaking up the heady atmosphere of creativity, breakthrough problem-solving, open-spiritedness, and generosity. If you’re not familiar with TED, you can check it out - some of this year's presentations are already online. The goal of this piece is not to recap the talks. We are not reporters; we are simply lovers of language, and we wanted to share the delight and inspiration we found in revisting the words that moved us. This is admittedly a somewhat random list, but we hope it gets you thinking as these words did for us.

We define empathy as "the ability to share someone else's feelings or emotions," and it is the root of what it means to be human. But it's also the basis of much important problem-solving. For example, having enough to eat but also having empathy for those who don't, spurs scientists in first-world countries to solve issues of global food supply.

We also heard how empathy can help overcome the increasingly prevalent problem of online bullying and harassment. In the words of Monica Lewinsky, "shame cannot survive empathy."

Rather than having its usual pronunciation and definition, this word was used as UP-standing - the idea of standing up for someone who is being bullied, harassed, or abused. It means countering the stream of abusive tweets with a positive, supporting comment. It means refusing to break the internet with clicks on stolen photos and emails. It means your empathy isn’t just a feeling. It’s an action that helps someone - and that might even save them.

Compassion is "the feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, or in trouble". What starts with empathy moves to the realm of action through compassion. We heard from speakers who are using science, innovation, and inspiration to help people in so many different situations: from at-risk youth here in America to enslaved children in India, from helping the blind to "see" to a new 3D printer that harnesses light and oxygen to create objects up to 100 times faster than we do now. Imagine this last being used to create made-to-order medical stents while a patient lies on the table.

We often think of creativity as related to the arts—painters, writers, musicians, dancers - but creativity is also defined as simply "the ability to make new things or think of new ideas." And did we hear amazing new solutions to many questions we hadn't even thought to ask, such as How can you capture sound from the invisible (to the human eye) sonar vibrations in a silent video? How can you grow biological "clothing"? Creativity then is coming up with new solutions to existing problems, or even identifying problems to solve no one has else has yet noted. We were reminded that "it's just that way" is never the right answer. We were reminded to dig deep and think hard.

If creativity is solving problems, curiosity is the precursor that enables you to identify problems, question the status quo, and dig in to testing different possible theories. Why is this like that? Will this work? No, hmm, how about that? Those of us who have or work with children are familiar with the "crazy" questions they ask - and those of us who hold on to that sense of curiosity and keep asking crazy questions are the ones who are in the best position to change the world.

We've heard talk about the global village for some time now, but it hasn't really been a reality in many parts of the world. Yet now it's estimated that in just a few short years nearly every person on this planet could have a powerful, connected computer in the palm of their hand. What will this mean not only for communication, but for the ability to propagate resources and education? How will those of us who are empathetic and compassionate use our curiosity and creativity to leverage that connectedness for a more positive world?

The concept of justice has gotten a lot of attention lately - it was a trending word on our dictionary in December - but we were reminded here to apply the concepts of justice not only to current events but to future planning. To cite just one example: When we have rockets that will take us to Mars, and scientists who have figured out how we will live there (yes, this was laid out for us in detail), how will we ensure that we don't replicate a system in which the wealthiest among us can afford to flee the problems here on Earth while leaving the less advantaged behind?

Surprised to find this on the list? We were surprised to hear a Nobel Peace Prize winner encourage us to become angry. Kaliash Satyarthi says that anger has been the source of all his truly good ideas. His anger at the injustices around him was "transformative," and he suggested that instead of anger turning violent and destructive, anger could be the catalyst for an idea and an incentive to positive action.

Happiness
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Long-Gone Words

When TED host Chris Anderson asked the Dalai Lama what is the purpose of life, his answer was "happiness." The Dalai Lama went on to differentiate between happiness associated with sensory and material pleasure, and what he called "mental level happiness" - what we define as "a state of well-being and contentment" that comes from appreciation and tranquility. Another frequent TED speaker, Dan Dennett, has put it another way: "The secret to happiness is working for an idea that is bigger than you are."

Do big things. Be creative. Help people. Be happy.




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