ADJECTIVE; equating elevation with worth
‘an acrocentric description of the surgeon's skill is that she is at the top of her profession'
We speak as though 'Up' equals 'Good'...
The concept is implicit in popular inspirational quotes: "Your attitude determines your altitude."
The are countless depictions of Heaven or Paradise as on a plane, physical or spiritual or both located above the plane of the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere: “The Lord above.” “The man upstairs.” “Heavens above.”
We also see very recent idioms adopting the old concept of acrocentricity into new concepts. Like the idea of “trolling at a high level.”
Despite their different subjects, all these examples share the attribute of using language that equates elevation with worth. (There are loads more, and I’d love to see examples you’ve used or encountered. Tag @autonomike on Twitter and use #acrocentricity and I'll add them to this article.)
...and as though 'Down' equals 'Bad'
"Bottom feeder." “That’s low.” “Downtrodden.” “You have to learn to crawl before you walk.” and even the term “To put someone down.” “To fall from grace.” “To be taken down a peg.” “To be laid low.” “Scraping the bottom of the barrel.” “To be “tread on” or “stepped over”. And of course depictions abound of Hell as subterranean, “down there”, below our feet, ever presently waiting for us to fail and fall. “It’s all downhill from here,” indicates a “descent” into an inferior circumstance, even despite the considerable biophysical realities of moving downhill consuming less energy than moving uphill.
There are many situations where elevation is not good – or downright dangerous. The fear of heights is one common example. The actual danger of heights is another. Yet humans can also have a rush of adrenaline and dopamine in response to such danger – a physical acrocentric response!
The non-universality of acrocentricity and upness
How can we explain our innate trait to equate 'Up' with 'Good'?
Regardless of whose viewpoint is used, an increasing stock price raises the point of value on the graph to correspond with a greater number in terms of its financial value. That word choice may be relevant to explaining acrocentricity: "greatness" is inherently associated with both size and positivity in the English-speaking parts of the world. The association of these two definitions for the word "great", although illogical in its lack of absoluteness (consider: you probably wouldn't describe a tumour as "becoming greater" as it grew bigger), nevertheless provides a simple etymological possibility for explaining our now deeply entrenched sense of acrocentricity:
"Good means great" > "Great" means "big" > "big" means "tall" > "tall" means "high" > so "high" therefore means "good".
In numerical terms it’s a bit clearer. A graph, be it of share prices or percentages or other values, depicts height (or 'upness') as being further along the y axis from zero, with zero marking the bisection with the x axis and the integer marking the y axis’s end at its furthest point from the bisection. To our human eyes, the y axis goes up and down. So we describe it that way: 6 is a “higher” number than 5 on that vertical axis. In fact 6 is a “greater” number than 5, which means bigger, which means taller, which means higher. Isn’t it interesting how we don’t call 6 a taller number than 5, but we would call it bigger, higher, or greater?
The arbitrariness of up
'Up' as we know it only exists on spherical bodies; not cubes, cones, or hexagonal prisms. Since there's no height without an up against which to measure it, height too is a property of spherical bodies.
Since "up" means "out," and "higher" means "further out," what does this logical definition do to acrocentricity? Does “out” mean good? Does distance from a centre denote worth? Are nuclei bad, and the worth of orbits measured by their distance from them? Not generally. Outness, despite sharing its exact meaning with upness, doesn’t stretch to include worth. (Unless maybe you consider the phrase “that’s far out, man,” to be high praise.)
The concept of good being up and bad being down indicates that it’s a struggle, and a risk to advance compared to regress. Regression is often as easy as inaction or action: doing the wrong thing, or not doing anything when something needs to be done. This relates to the perpetual embrace of gravity, whereby for many of us our entire lives teach us that moving upward is a matter of concerted and coordinated physical effort which must be conducted just right, whereas moving downward can be as simple as letting go – and perhaps even fatal, if we were to fall too far.
PhD candidate and ecologist Joshua Thoresen considered the matter of acrocentricity during development of this article, and quoted to me Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind:
"Why do people feel the need to climb things? Mountains, rocks, cliffs?
This is the best answer I've seen to this question so often asked:
"The urge to explore space - to go higher - is innate to the human mind... The equation of height with goodness is embedded in our language and consequently the way we think. Our verb 'to excel' comes from the Latin excelsus, meaning elevated or high. Our noun 'superiority' in from the Latin comparative superior, meaning higher in situation... Conversely a clutch of pejorative words are associated with depth: 'lowliness', 'inferiority', 'base', dozens more. We construct our models of progress on a gradient. We move on up, or we sink back down. It is harder to do the former than the latter, but that makes it only more admirable. One does not, under any linguistic circumstances, progress down."
- Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind
It seems we should be asking not ‘why do you climb?’ But, ‘why don't you?’"
The anthropomorphic view
Never mind internet searches, what about before all this visual technology and all these screens? What about back when homo-sapiens was a canny forebrained ape making its first ventures into the realm of technological advancement with a flat rock and pointed stick? Vision was all important then. Our eyes, at the front of our ape skulls just like our cousin species, are well adapted for hunting. Our night vision is excellent. Our prehistoric communities stood safe thanks to the watchful eyes of sentries who could spot any major threat and raise the alarm. Those sentries would have found that an elevated position -- atop a boulder, a hill, up a tree – afforded a superior view and the ability to see further than the mere ground allowed.
Specifically, spatial elevation affords humans increased visual information.
The further we are upward from the plane supporting us, the further around that plane we can see. The distance it affords allows for there to be more molecules for photons to bounce off and slam directly into the photoreceptor cells of our retinas at the back of our eyes. The more height we gain, the more photons go into the eye, and the more information there is for the brain to make sense and use of. Information is inherently valuable to humans. (I don’t need to tell you that! Look at your greedy eye-brain right now guzzling up all this delicious information.) Through our vision, a little height translates to greater volumes of visual information. Go high enough and you’ll see fully half of the planet!
In practical terms for the development of a species, the principle of ‘elevation = information’ has proven its value over millennia. Be it a forager surveying for a prime picking spot, a hunter searching for prey, a hiker trying to gain their bearings, a lookout in a crow’s nest scanning the horizon, a fort outpost overlooking hostile territory, a firewatch tower placed to monitor bush fire activity, no matter the application the equation remains: ‘Elevation = information’.
If you need to see stuff, higher is most definitely better.
The principle holds equally true today. You can test it right now by looking up from the device near your face to survey your environ. Behold, a slightly broader view of your environment; a larger span of visually-acquired information gained through the simple act of raising your eyes or your head or both at once.
Could this universal principle be the basis for acrocentrcity? I’m not claiming it is, because that would at least require a venture into other languages, which is the topic of a future article. But it does seem likely.
We should note here that in English, acrocentricity is independent of the visual aspect this explanation relies on. We don’t say “at the highest visual vantage point of ones career.” We say “at the height of ones career.” Perhaps vision is implicit. Or perhaps the principle of ‘elevation = information’ is a separate one to the linguistic phenomenon of acrocentricity. Make up your own mind.
Is acrocentricity healthy? Is it safe?
“The University has the highest reputation in its category.”
“The University has been rated as Reputable by 6 out of 10 survey respondents, compared to 5 and 1 for the other universities in its category.”
Bit of a difference. “Highest” conveys “Let’s not get into exactly how much better it is, OK?” It conveys less denotative information and a great deal more connotation. The second explanation is more useful for analysis. But the acrocentric explanation is more useful for conveying our feelings of the subject as if they are more than just our feelings.
In this way, it would be fair to call acrocentric language a form of Weasel Words.
Acrocentricity is here to stay. I haven’t finished plumbing ancient texts for instances of it, but at this stage the hypothesis is that the phenomenon is very old.
You might enjoy making a game of spotting acrocentricity when you come across it, or even pointing it out when you hear others discuss their "high" salary or their "elevated" social status. You might even challenge them to say more explicitly what they mean using language that doesn’t connotatively try to convey a sense of worth when all the speaker is really saying is how they personally feel about the subject. Insisting that ones organisation is of higher repute than ones competitors just means that the person thinks it has a better reputation than their competitors: acrocentric boasting offers no objective metric whatsoever. If you do point it out or challenge it when encountered, you might see people struggle to use denotative language, and resent you for putting them to cognitive effort they had tried to dodge by using such easy language. It is, after all, a phenomenon we English-speakers learn from the very outset.
Perhaps that’s the value of acrocentricity: an easy linguistic aid to sell our views on matters we don’t know how to describe in denotative terms.
It can be useful and interesting to be aware of, but there's really no need to get high and mighty about it.