by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
Most of us are familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary as the worldwide arbiter of English language words–“the definitive record of the English language,” it humbly boasts–even if we use the Merriam-Webster dictionary in the U.S. But it turns out that there’s also a Cambridge Dictionary. And the Cambridge Dictionary publishes a blog about about words. The blog’s name: “About Words,” and in the December 2, 2020, post they tackled “interesting ways of saying ‘noisy.'” As writer Liz Walter notes, the word loud is itself neutral, but noisy almost implies that the sound is unreasonable or annoying.
The standard definition of noise, which I have traced back to a committee of the Acoustical Society of America in the early 1930s, is “noise is unwanted sound.” That definition has been enshrined in the definitions of the American National Standards Institute, and cited by authorities like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, among many others.
Of course, I prefer my new definition of noise, “noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.” After all, even wanted sound, such as that at a rock concert or motorsports event, can be harmful. Just calling noise “unwanted sound” also communicates a value judgment about those complaining about loud sound, implying that those who complain must have something wrong with them, being overly sensitive, neurotic, radical environmentalists, or busybodies who want to interfere with someone else’s enjoyment of loud music or motorcycles with modified exhaust pipes.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that regardless of which formal definition one uses, or with other words or phrases one uses to describe it, noise is sound energy and noise causes auditory damage.
As I often say, if it sounds loud, it’s too loud. Avoid loud noise or insert earplugs now, or need hearing aids later.
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.