Wednesday, November 28, 2001

They Have a Word for It

While visiting in Spain, Oregonian Dale Sloat entered a small store with the sign "Snack Bar" outside. Hoping to find out more about the various items in the display case, he pointed to one and asked, in his best tourist Spanish, "What is the name of that?" The reply from behind the counter: "Sandwich."

Friday, November 16, 2001

Fact or Inference?

This CNN poll asks readers "Is Osama Bin Ladin still in Afghanistan?" I asked myself "How would they know?" Perhaps they should have asked "Do you HOPE Osama Bin Ladin is still in Afghanistan?" At least then, people might see it as a measure of opinion (and perhaps groundless) versus some kind of estimate of knowledge or intelligence.
CNN - Content

Tuesday, November 13, 2001


Language is not neutral. It is not merely a vehicle which carries ideas. It is itself a shaper of ideas.
-Dale Spender, writer (1943- )

Monday, November 12, 2001

How We Use Language

We know how readily our language acquires new words and new meanings for old words. This article by Ken Ringle of the Washington Post enumerates a fresh batch of coinages spawned by the current "war" in which we find ourselves.

Them's Fightin' Words: War Lingo Rushes to the Front (

As I read this, I recalled dealing as a parent with a youngster who has just discovered the pain of losing a friend to a sudden fatal illness. On the one hand, I wanted to acknowledge the distress this loss has caused him. On the other hand, I knew I had to help him put the loss into perspective, to place it accurately in the full range of possible losses.

The author of this article quotes a language authority as saying "No term has yet been coined to convey even the scope of what happened on Sept. 11, much less the horror." I wonder if people in Nagasaki or Bhopal or Rwanda would agree with that. Or do we as a nation need a loving parent or leader to remind us that, while our hearts will hurt for a long time over this loss, we have not suffered something outside the imaginable range of losses, that others in the world have suffered similar tragedies or even much greater.

In my view, perspective doesn't diminish the personal, it ratifies and normalizes it. A childish person may want to hear a justification for anger and revenge. An adult wants the information that makes it possible to replace such emotions with an improved sense of humanity.

Monday, November 05, 2001

The Word is not the Thing

From Alexander Bryan Johnson's prescient work A Treatise on Language published in 1832:

"As bank notes are the artificial representatives of specie, so words are the artificial representatives of natural phenomena.

"We employ words as though they possess, like specie, an intrinsick and natural value; rather than as though they possess, like bank notes, a merely conventional, artificial, and representative value. We must convert our words into the natural realities which the words represent, if we would understand accurately their value. Some banks, when you present their notes for redemption, will pay you in other bank notes; but we must not confound such a payment with an actual liquidation in specie. We shall still possess, in the new notes, nothing but the representatives of specie. In like manner, when you seek the meaning of a word, you may obtain its conversion into other words, or into some verbal thoughts; but you must not confound such a meaning with the phenomena of nature. You will still possess in the new words, nothing but the representatives of natural existences."

Sunday, November 04, 2001

Revealing the �Real Mechanism of Thought� ?

The Third Annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) convened November 1, with hundreds of writers and would-be writers participating. The objective--to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, regardless of quality. This sort of project has some philosophical roots in the study of "automatic writing". Ed LaFarge of the Village Voice reviews the history of automatic writing and the fascination it held for writers in the 19th century and in the surrealist movement of the 1920s. One proponent, Andre Breton, posited that autmatic writing "revealed the real mechanism of thought" and that if all writers embraced the habit, "all distinctions, as between perception and representation, subject and object, waking and sleep, sanity and madness, would collapse, and the subject would be freed from what the bourgeoisie, for their own nefarious ends, called 'reality.'�
NaNoWriMo !
Village Voice writer Ed LaFarge

Saturday, November 03, 2001


"The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best--and therefore never scrutinize or question."
-Stephen Jay Gould

Thursday, November 01, 2001

Confusing Fact with Inference!

A woman and a baby were in the doctor's examining room, waiting for the doctor to come in. The doctor arrived, examined the baby, checked his weight and asked if the baby was breast fed or bottle fed.

"Breast fed" she replied.

"Okay. I want you to strip down to your waist," the doctor ordered. She did as asked. He pressed, kneaded and pinched both breasts for quite a while in a detailed examination. Motioning to her to get dressed he said, "No wonder this baby is hungry. You don't have any milk."

"I know," she said, "I'm his Grandma, but I'm glad I came."