Wordplay: Inscrutable

I was just thinking about differences between men and women, that classic trope. And I was imagining saying something like, “Yeah, women may think and feel differently from how men do, in general, they’re different, but they’re not inscrutable.”

And it occurred to me “inscrutable” is one of those words I love to use but it’s not really a common word. So I imagined someone asking me what it meant, and I’d describe it as “mysterious… unknowable.”

And then it’s like, why not just use “unknowable”? But this gets to the whole point of my wordplay segment: I love the fact that we have lots of different words that all mean kind of the same thing. Because there’s an enormous amount of nuance in everything we think, say, and do, and if we didn’t have all these slightly different words, it would be much harder to communicate that nuance1.

So what’s the difference between “inscrutable” and “unknowable”? Before I go for the dictionary, I always like to look at what I think the difference is: how the different words feel.

“Unknowable” feels like the far edge of the continuum of mystery: no matter how much you might want to know this, you can’t. It will never be found out.

“Inscrutable” feels like it’s not as close to the edge. Yes, it’s mysterious, it might be difficult to discover or understand, but it’s not literally “unable to be known”.

Now let’s see what the dictionary2 says:

inscrutable, adjective: impossible to understand or interpret.

Origin: late Middle English: from ecclesiastical Latin inscrutabilis, from in- ‘not’ + scrutari ‘to search’ (see scrutiny3).

So in fact that sounds very similar to “unknowable”. But (since this is the point of wordplay), let’s go deeper.

“Inscrutable” means “impossible to understand”, and “unknowable” means “impossible to know”. What’s the difference between “knowing” and “understanding”?

know, verb: be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information4

understand, verb: perceive the intended meaning of

While the thesaurus tends to offer these as synonyms, there’s a difference to be seen there if we want it: “knowing” relates to anything of which one could become aware. “Understanding”, though, relates to things which have a “meaning”.

Depending on your philosophy, not everything has a “meaning”; for example, the sounds an animal makes can be understood to “mean” something in the sense they’re in response to a stimulus—the animal could be hungry, or alarmed. Whereas the relative position of rocks that tumbled down the face of a cliff, I would argue, doesn’t “mean” anything, because I don’t apply the concept of “meaning” to non-living physical forces (like friction and gravity).

In this case, the position of the rocks can be “known”, but it can’t be “understood”, because there’s nothing in there to understand. The cry of the animal can be both known and understood, because it “means” something; there’s meaning there to be interpreted5.

The position of rocks in a parallel universe could be said to be “unknowable”—it cannot be discovered through observation, inquiry, or information. But it can’t be said to be “inscrutable” anymore than the position of rocks in our world is “inscrutable”.

There’s nothing there to… scrute.

(I like that as an ending, but back to the initial topic: it’s a dramatic overstatement to say that how another gender thinks and feels is either “unknowable” or “inscrutable”. It’s easily knowable through inquiry, and it’s perhaps-not-as-easily-it-depends-on-you understandable through empathy.)