The screw on the strike plate to my hotel room had come loose, so the plate just dangled and had to be repositioned every time I closed the door. I told the person at the front desk about this and she said she’d pass the information on to maintenance.
That’s a simplified account. Our actual exchange went more like this.
—So on the door there’s the little part that goes in an out when you turn the handle.
—Then there’s a metal plate there on the inside edge of the door around it. That part’s loose.
—I think I know what you mean. I’ll tell maintenance. I’m just not sure what to call it.
—I know. It’s that little thing. The part that goes around the part that goes in and out. If it was a deadbolt I’d call it the “bolt”, but it’s just a regular lock. I don’t know what to call it either.
—Right. That little piece.
—You could probably just tell them “door broke” and they would figure it out.
Later investigation revealed that the metal plate is called a “strike plate”, which is “mortised” into the inner edge of the door and covers the head of the “latch mechanism”. This last term appears to apply to the entire spring-loaded device: I can’t locate a word that means just the little curved nubbin of metal that slides in and out to keep the door in place. Ours was a clumsy but illustrative exchange.
Language works. Two native speakers of the same language can walk up to each other and interact fruitfully on basically any issue of immediate practical significance. We all do this all the time, instantly and efficiently, without any attention directed towards the act of communication itself. There’s a misconception that only a small number of highly intelligent (whatever that means) people can speak well, and the rest of us just kind of grunt at each other and manage to communicate by dumb luck, but nothing could be further from the truth. The average person’s capacity for everyday conversation is an ability that dwarfs oddball corner cases of speech like poetry, oratory, witty banter, and so forth where one actually makes note of eloquence. Because we are all so uniformly good at it, we don’t realize how good we are. People speak the way fish swim.
Usually. But here is a case where two competent native English speakers approached each other with the intention of communicating about a simple matter and found that words literally failed them. You could argue that we were stymied by technological jargon (certainly there are plenty of carpenters and hardware store employees would have had the vocabulary ready to hand) but at the same time it’s not rocket science, it’s an everyday object. It’s a door. Fortunately, the human capacity for communication outpaces the human capacity for speech, so I am confident that the door will get fixed. Still, in that moment the woman at the front desk and I got to see how language works by momentarily feeling the machine break down.