Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Danger in Words

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." -- Sir Arthur Eddington

During one of those surreal moments that make my days worth living, a friend of mine pointed out that, when making tea, we "plug the kettle in." However, when the water's boiling, we "unplug the kettle." We don't "plug the kettle out." Conversely, before we "unplug" the kettle, we don't "plug" it.

This is why I love English. It makes no sense. In what other language would "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing, but "continent" and "incontinent" not?

All of which (because my head is an unusual place) leads me to wonder about the "For Dummies" and "Complete Idiot's Guide" books. Why is there no "Dummies Books for Dummies" guide for those who don't understand the rudiments of the collection? Or how about "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Complete Idiots" for those who fail to recognize the unintelligent before suffering the unpleasant consequences of encountering them?

There are no Field Guides to North American Birdwatchers, either.

And I've always laughed at those instruction manuals which open with a section entitled, "How to use this book," as though the instruction manual were in need of an instruction manual.

Mostly True Story:

A number of years ago when I lived in Toronto, I worked for a man who developed an unusual problem. During a windstorm, an old, cracked plastic garbage can had blown into his yard. He set it out by the corner, hoping someone would recognize and claim it. When no one did, he decided to throw it out. He left it out on the curb on garbage day, but the sanitation engineers didn't recognize it as trash and left it there. He tried putting it in his own garbage can with other stuff and leaving it again. They emptied both cans and left the broken one behind. Finally he wrote a "Take me" sign and taped it to the broken can.

They took the sign.


slcard said...

Ulysses, please tell me I am not the idiot you wish you'd had the field guide to avoid. Or rather, please tell me if I am.

As for English: I never fully grasped just how insufferable it can be until I had to teach it to my son. My best advice to him has been, "Just memorize it."

Now I must run and make a cup of Earl Grey and try to shake the caricature images of birdwatchers out of my head.

slcard said...

Hello Ulysses:

This is terribly ill-timed, but I decided a week or so ago to fill out the Blogger profile and introduce myself to my fellow aspiring Canadian writers for my birthday. So, hello, my name is Sara and discovering a new post of yours is like being a kid again and finding the prize in the cereal box.

Today, as mentioned, is my birthday, and I always love my birthday, but I am especially excited about this year as my husband has pointed out my age is now divisible by 13. The last time I could be divided up by such a lucky number I had just begun writing with a bent toward publication, and I married that boy I had been dating for ten years. The latter has proved a very happy occurrence; it depends on the day just how I feel about the whole writing thing. It is my hope this year will prove as pleasantly life-altering (I mean, or course, moving closer toward publication... pause to pray...), may it be so for you as well.

Kind Regards,

Sara L. Card

Ulysses said...

Happy belated birthday, Sara.

The more I'm exposed to other languages (Chinese in particular, but also Russian and some Hindi) the more I realize that context is everything. The meaning and impact of words depends so much on the words around them that to strip them of context is like pulling the clothes off of Rosie O'Donnel: you won't like what you see, and you'll laugh if you think you can get away with it.

I have great hopes for the coming year as well. With luck, I'll be getting older.

slcard said...

Thanks for the greetings. It was a great day.

Chinese, Russian and Hindi?! I am impressed, I struggle terribly with English alone, but poor Rosie... Do you read Furious D?

Ulysses said...

I've glanced at Furious D, and to be clear, I don't speak any of those languages. I just hear a lot of them every day and pick up a word or phrase by osmosis.

slcard said...

My question about Furious D was in regards to Rosie. He posted his opinion a few times last month. His opinion was not high. I find it amusing you have both been inspired to mention her within a short period. Perhaps I'm missing something. In fact, there is a very good chance I am missing something. Maybe I should get cable television.

I remain impressed with your interest in languages. I seem to have an impereable membrane. Despite years of teacher's efforts and my own bizarre interest (sometimes I feel like a blind painter), nothing seems to get through. However, I remain dogged, worshipping Beethoven.

And you won't find my foolscap litter; oh no, it will be hidden in my walls.

PS As if the universe is trying to tell me something, this will be the third time I've had to attempt the word verification. I would be annoyed if it wasn't so damn amusing.

slcard said...


This is really not my day.

Ulysses said...

I speak only one language, and not well.

Rosie just floated to the top of the zeitgeist, I guess. I find her abrasive, but admire her integrity. She lives her life out loud and without obvious compromise. I can admire that.

PS: Impermeable? No problem. Relevant? I can never remember if the "a" is supposed to be in there or if it's all "e"'s. Everyone's got their linguistic weakness, I guess.

slcard said...

As a result of the busy season, and really just not knowing what to say that wouldn't lead to more debate, I have said nothing, but I could ramble on about this little bit of absurdity forever. It's a personal sore point, my friend.

I'll just say, you're correct, context is everything, but it can be so obscure.

Happy holidays, Ulysses, to you and your family. May the new year bring you more than just age and may it all be joyful. Thanks for the interesting blog.

Ulysses said...

Thanks for reading, Sara. Happy Holidays, and may the best of your yesterdays be the worst of your tomorrows.