What’s in a name?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet?”

Definitions are very important for thinking, and their importance has been discussed by philosophers since the time of the Greeks.

This article in The New York Times reports on an effort by a manufacturer of the food additive monosodium glutamate to have Merriam-Webster redefine “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to delete the reference to MSG. The article quotes a spokesperson for Merriam-Webster, who in an email stated, “We record the language — we do not create, sanction or promote any specific words; the language’s speakers do this, and we provide a record of this use.”

I understand the frustration of the MSG manufacturer, because I am engaged in a similar effort to redefine noise. The most common definition of noise, based on the American National Standards Institute definition, is “noise is unwanted sound.” This implies that a perception of a sound as noise rather than as meaningful sound is purely subjective, in the ear of the listener–if I may coin a phrase–with a further implication that there is something wrong with those who complain about sounds that others don’t find bothersome.

My proposed new definition is “noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.” The new definition makes explicit the fact that noise causes harm to people and animals at sound levels beginning as low as 30 A-weighted decibels*, and causes both auditory and non-auditory health effects. I summarized that information in the Fall 2019 issue of Acoustics Today.

I haven’t reached out to the folks at Merriam-Webster, nor started a social media campaign to effect this change, but maybe I will.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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