On conversation

James Radcliffe on conversation:

At its best the act of conversation can be many things; connection, communion, truth-finding, enlightenment, inspiration, a healing…  I do not overstate when I say that I have participated in conversations that have bordered on spiritual awakenings.  […]

The thing that I love about a great conversation is the same thing that I love about being part of a great gig, about making love, or participating in the creative process.  All these things are capable of rendering up jewels of light.  This is the truly good stuff; this is what makes life worth living; this is what balances the chaotic fury of flying blind thru the ever-storm of a darkening experience.

I’ve thought something of the sort recently. How my very favorite thing in the world might just be conversation, and how seldom we might consider this a possible answer.

Mark Twain on typewriters

Mark Twain writes about using one of the first typewriters, disliking it, and attempting to get rid of it:

In a previous chapter of this Autobiography I have claimed that I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house for practical purposes; I will now claim — until dispossessed — that I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.

That book must have been “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I wrote the first half of it in ’72, the rest of it in ’74. My machinist type-copied a book for me in ’74, so I conclude it was that one. That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects — devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of to-day has virtues.

After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties, and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself.

He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered. He kept it six months, and then returned it to me. I gave it away twice after that, but it wouldn’t stay; it came back. Then I gave it to our coachman, Patrick McAleer, who was very grateful, because he did not know the animal, and thought I was trying to make him wiser and better. As soon as he got wiser and better, he traded it to a heretic for a side-saddle which he could not use, and there my knowledge of its history ends.

Via Futility Closet.

I can’t even

Amanda Hess writes on contemporary can’t-even-ing:

For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

Hess’s history of the phrase is interesting, but her explanation of its purpose — to shield its meaning from parents — is completely inaccurate.

As obfuscation goes, can’t even ranks as a fairly transparent colloquialism. I can’t even [believe it], I can’t even [comprehend that] — these are not profoundly difficult exclamations to decipher. A parent that’s unable to do so might benefit from laying off the Strunk & White.

The notion also reveals the self-importance of many parents. I concealed fairly little from my parents, and know many who did the same. It wasn’t because we were particularly virtuous; rather it was because parents — bless them — are largely oblivious to their children’s actual lives, and so we didn’t need to.

Hess portrays the neurotic parent who faithfully spies on their children, but as everyone suspects the kids always come out ahead.

The meaning of school

Maeve Maddox on the changing meaning of “school”:

Since Shakespeare’s time at least, children have been portrayed as being reluctant to go to school:

…the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. —As You Like It, II:vii,148-150.

That’s a sad fate for school, a word that originated in the context of enjoyable leisure time.

Our word school comes from Latin schola, “learned leisure.” Schola was free time during which educated men could sit around and talk about ideas. The talk might lead to lecturing and arguing, so from meaning “free time for talking about ideas,” schola came to mean debate, dispute, lecture, dissertation.


Lagniappe is one of those words you don’t quite expect to exist, either in sound or meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “something given as a bonus or gratuity”, but Mark Twain is a bit more generous in his Life on the Mississippi:

We picked up one excellent word—a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word—“Lagniappe.” They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish—so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop—or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know—he finishes the operation by saying,—

“Give me something for lagniappe.”

The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor—I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.

When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans,—and you say, “What, again?—no, I’ve had enough”; the other party says, “But just this one time more—this is for lagniappe.” When the beau perceives that he is stacking his compliments a trifle too high, and sees by the young lady’s countenance that the edifice would have been better with the top compliment left off, he puts his “I beg pardon,—no harm intended,” into the briefer form of “Oh, that’s for lagniappe.” If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says “For lagniappe, sah,” and gets you another cup without extra charge.

Special thanks to Kat for inadvertently introducing this word to me.

Literally literally

Stan Carey writes about the usages and history of literally:

Last week I heard a news reporter on Irish television describe people as “literally gutted” by the news of job losses. She meant, of course, that they were devastated, not that their intestines were spilt: she used literally to intensify a figurative statement. This is typical of how the word is often informally used – many would say misused.

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it. […]

Language is fundamentally metaphorical, and with literally we have walked a very long way from the Latin for letter. “[I]t’s impossible to tell where literality leaves off,” writes linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, “nor is there usually any practical reason for trying to do so.”

As an unapologetic fan of hyperbole, I make extensive use of the non-literal “literally”. I’ve never observed my usage causing confusion, so can fairly easily write off any such concern.

More generally, I’m not sure why some people insist on notions like “misuse”. I think it’s literally impossible to “misuse” a word, if the vitality of language arises from actual usage, rather than “correct” usage that some cabal imposes by fiat.

I should note that such a “cabal” is not literally a cabal, as they’re probably not politically motivated, and aren’t really very secretive about their existence or their priggishness. Similarly, this “fiat” cannot be understood as a literal fiat, because that would probably require the issuance of all sorts of very important and formal looking documents, or at least the use of one of those neat embosser things that notaries use for no discernible reason.

Rocks and stones

Andrea Badgley ponders the difference between rocks and stones:

It’s funny, the word rocks is much harsher to me than the word stones. […]

When I think of rocks I see dusty gravel, grey granite shards with glints of quartz or mica, the rocks themselves planed and angular, bumpy with unclean breaks. Triangles protrude from a pile looking jagged and dangerous. Unwelcoming. […]

Stones, though. Stones are smooth and rounded. Domes of shiny grey on a Maine beach. They are welcoming. They fit in the palm of your hand and are comforting in their age and smoothness.

I share Andrea’s intuition about the difference between rocks and stones, but Merriam-Webster apparently does not. On the other hand, geology writer David B. Williams observes commonly held distinctions between the two:

I found that some people thought that stone was more British; that rock could be hard and soft, whereas stone was always hard; that stones are smooth and rocks rough; and that stones are small and rocks are big.

He also notes that the Oxford English Dictionary defines rock as “A large rugged mass of hard mineral material or stone”, while a stone is “A piece of rock or hard mineral substance of a small or moderate size.” Here, this indicates that rocks are stones, while stones may not be rocks, while acknowledging a particular use of rock that specifies the object is rough.

Nevertheless, it seems ambiguous enough that we should specifically indicate (where relevant) whether a rock or stone is rough or smooth. But that doesn’t really satisfy my curiosity about how these peripheral meanings are formed, and why they are commonly shared.

I wonder if it has something to do with the aesthetics of these words. I observe that the words sofa and couch seem to share a similar distinction, where sofa seems more refined than the terse couch. Somehow the word sofa seems to pair better with stone and smooth than rock does. And somehow couch jibes with rock and rough.

Pleasingly convoluted words

James Harbeck of Sesquiotica on a few pleasingly convoluted words:

When I was a little kid, certain adults would tell me to eat the crusts on my bread because they would make my hair curly.

This did not make me want to eat the crusts on my bread. […]

Some words are like that curl: unnecessary ornaments used just because someone thinks they will look good: “A longer, hairier word would go better here.” I have nothing against ornamental words, of course – I have a massive collection of them – but I also don’t think they are intrinsically better. There is no prima facie reason to think that a polysyllabic Latin-Greek confection is a truer, more accurate name for a thing than two syllables of Anglo-Saxon. But words are known by the company they keep, and some words just look like they belong to the best clubs. […]

So. I am leiotrichous. This may sound like the self-introduction of some ancient monster or warrior, but it just means I have straight hair – Greek λεῖος leios ‘smooth’. Certain adults of my childhood thought it was better to be ulotrichous: to have curly hair – Greek οὖλος oulos ‘crisp, curly’. Many people favour being cymotrichous: having wavy hair – Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’. I like all sorts of hair, and all lengths from ankle to none. I’m fine with what I have.

Many people have a strong aversion to polysyllabic words, considering their use a mark of pretension. It’s not completely unjustified, given that such words are often the province of obscurantists and what Harbeck might call “ostentatious sesquipedalian pseudo-classicists.”

Nevertheless, there is a certain pleasure in collecting these words, as if they’re some “odd mystical little object that looks rare and special and pricey but that is unidentifiable.”

My own tastes tend toward quirky and ethereal Britishisms like wonky, and labyrinthine writing that, as Virginia Woolf put it, is “flawed and imperfect, but starred with poetry.”

Pedants, and not the multitude, are the first to decry these, and it’s a shame because we might otherwise find ourselves united as hoarders.

Three stupid words

From L. Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose (1939):

We should not allow our habits of thought to close our minds, nor rely upon catch-words to save ourselves from the labour of thinking. Vitamins are essential for the natural growth of our bodies; the critical questioning at times of our potted beliefs is necessary for the development of our capacity to think to some purpose.

I’ve noticed three words becoming more prevalent in political discussions. These are words that tend to promote “potted beliefs”, and I think it’s worth examining them, so that we may avoid them or use them more carefully. These words are “problematic”, “narrative”, and “offensive”.

Each of these words has a more literal meaning, which is frequently unused as it carries little of substance. Suggesting that something is “problematic”, a “narrative”, or “offensive” doesn’t really say very much. At best, each creates a very superficial kind of distinction, such as when people say that such-and-such apples are “real” apples, without suggesting that “fake apples” actually exist beyond the familiar plastic replicas you might keep in a basket. When used in this manner, they’re perfectly fine words. The problem is, they’re seldom used this way in fashionable discussion.

Rather, the way in which they’re often used is quite different. “Problematic” is often used apparently as a substitute for “untrue”, which as Bertrand Russell puts it has all “the advantages of theft over honest toil”1. Once something is said to be “problematic”, any further discussion is to immediately cease, or else one is liable to be summarily executed as a counter-revoluntary. To explore just why something might be untrue is an unnecessary complication that would only put a damper on breathtaking rhetoric.

It’s a rather strange notion, assuming that pursuing just why something appears untrue aids one in forming compelling arguments about the matter, which is presumably desirable by those who disagree with something. Therefore, I can only assume that those who find something “problematic” do so because they do not know why they believe something is untrue, and have merely inherited their views from others. If they were born in another era, perhaps they might believe that extending labor rights to children would be “problematic”.

“Narrative” is a word that’s used by people who have been so successfully abused by advertising that they believe the world is merely an arena in which competing fictions duel for the prize. Coca-Cola says they’re the best, while Pepsi says they’re the best, and so one must embrace intractable confusion surrounding matters of soda.

On such a view, “truth” is merely a construct formed by the powerful, rather than (say) lies mislabelled by the powerful. It’s unclear on what basis one should choose to propagate their favorite “narrative”, except for perhaps their chance membership of one insular group rather than another.

As for “offensive”, it is a word that can be used sensibly, but it can also be used in a vacuous manner similiar to “problematic”. When in doubt, a person should simply replace the word with the reasons for which they find something offensive. Sometimes they are quite reasonable. Otherwise, to state that something is “offensive” without much elaboration is to merely suggest that something stimulates a particular response in you, as if by reflex, and that others should share your response. Religious fundamentalists surely find all manner of fun offensive, as uncritically as pets yield to our commands. However, the question remains, “Why should we share your response?”

These are only a few words of many that are often used foolishly, and I don’t know the extent to which they actually shape our worldview. On the contrary, I tend to think their peculiar usages simply reflect some pre-existing stupidity which we all share. Nevertheless, after ridding yourself of them you may find yourself once again, as Stebbing puts it, “thinking to some purpose”.

  1. From Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919.

Americans fancy Britishisms

Alex Williams accusatorially speculates on Americans’ fancy for Britishisms:

Or maybe it’s just pretension, an instance of long-simmering Anglophilia among the American striver classes bubbling over into full-fledged imitation — or in the view of British observers, parody.

Among the words that ought to be banned from American use are cheers, sacked, clever, loorubbish, and wonky.

It’s a shame that Williams couldn’t suspend his priggishness to consider an alternative motive; namely, that these words are just plain fun.

The decay of Western civilization – really?

Neil Genzlinger on the decay of Western civilization and the modern use of “really”:

“Really?” was once an expression of wonderment that also acknowledged a gap in the user’s knowledge. Back when Einstein first announced that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, the “Reallys?” that resulted were saying: “I am astounded by your discovery, so much so that I can scarcely wrap my head around it. You, sir, are a genius.”

Jerry Seinfeld responds:

When I hear people say, “If you can wrap your head around it,” I want to wrap their heads around something, like a pole.

There’s no “wrapping.” There’s no heads going around.

Don’t preach to us about “Really?” and then wrap our heads around things.