Bisesquiquinquenniums and People’s 10 Favorite Words

Julia and I were raised in a household in which our dad would gleefully use words like “Bisesquiquinquenniums” (see if you can parse it, answer is beneath the fold). One iconic memory we have is of Dad running down the stairs excitedly saying, “Kids! The Occultation of Regulus is at hand!” (Yes, it’s a real astronomical occurrence.)

So it was with particular appreciation that I came across the Merriam Webster list of People’s Top 10 Favorite Words:

1 ) Defenestration: a throwing of a person or a thing out of a window; or a usually swift expulsion or dismissal
2 ) Flibbertigibbet: a silly flighty person
3 ) Kerfuffle: disturbance; fuss
4 ) Persnickety: fussy about small details; fastidious
5 ) Callipygian: having shapely buttocks
6 ) Serendipity: luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for
7 ) Mellifluous: having a smooth rich flow
8 ) Discombobulated: upset; confused
9 ) Palimpsest: writing material used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased; or, something with diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface
10 ) Sesquipedalian: long; characterized by the use of long words

All of these words are excellent. The last one would be a clue about “Bisesquiquinquennium”, except that the short definition doesn’t include the literal meaning.

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Map and Territory: Navigating Language

Three philosophy grad students were stranded on an abandoned island. They started wandering around exploring, making a map of the territory. To make it easier to talk about, they labeled the northern part of the island “Section A” and the southern part “Section B”, writing it in big letters on the top and bottom of the map.

After exploring a bit, Chris called out excitedly. “I found a radio in Section A! Check it out, we’re saved!” His friends came running.

“This is in Section B, not Section A,” said Bruce. “It’s south of the tree line, which is the obvious division between north and south.”
“Of course it’s Section A,” replied Alice. “This is north of the river, which is the way to divide the island.”

Chris shrugged. “I guess we never decided exactly what the border was; I just assumed we were using the river. It’s not like the radio moves based on what section we call this. We agree that it’s north of the river and south of the trees. It’s Section A if we use the river, Section B if we use the forest. Let’s just decide to use one or the other. Neither way is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; we’re making them up.”

Alice and Bruce weren’t buying it.

“What do you mean, we’re just making it up? The forest is real and the river is real. One of them makes the real boundary between Section A and Section B!”

Chris sat down to use the radio to call for help, leaving his two friends to their bickering.

Alice and Bruce were experiencing the “map and territory” confusion. A map is a mind-made categorization of real things in the territory. It doesn’t make sense to say that the decision to divide the territory in one way or another is “right” or “wrong”, only more or less useful in different contexts.

This comes up all too often in language. Like sections on a map, words are societal tools we use to categorize and communicate the real things we experience. Our society has some well-defined words like ‘hydrogen’ – we have a good shared understanding of exactly which conditions must be met to determine whether or not we should call something ‘hydrogen’.

But the boundaries around other words are hazier. People argue over whether to call something ‘love’, whether to call it ‘art’, and (one of the most contentious) whether to call it ‘moral’. By some definitions, a urinal on a pedestal qualifies as art, by other definitions it doesn’t. Society hasn’t agreed upon clear-cut boundaries for which feelings, objects, or actions fit into those categories. But the arguments are not about reality itself – they’re over the labels, the language map.

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Stuck in Your Head: Communicating Badly

If I’ve learned anything from blogging, it’s that I’m not writing for myself. Maybe other people treat their blogs as diaries, but I see blogging as a way to communicate my ideas to others. No surprise there; it’s what I do. I’m a communications director at heart, not just for a job. When I see crappy communication causing confusion or controversy, I feel compelled to counter it. (Ok, that alliteration WAS for me.)

Case in point: a poorly-received joke at the awesome and inspiring Southeast Regional Atheist Meetup resulted in a women running from the room in tears. I was at the event but missed that part, so I’m piecing the story together. During a heated discussion about how to make women feel more comfortable at atheist events, a visibly frustrated woman asked why the panel kept using the word ‘females’, since that made her feel like they were discussing livestock instead of people. Someone on the panel joked “What do you want us to say, ‘the weaker sex?'”

I’m pretty sure the panelist intended it to be funny. But the result was that the woman – who already felt marginalized and dismissed – got fed up and left crying. Probably not the result he intended. That’s the question we need to ask ourselves: What do we want to accomplish with what we’re saying?

A trick I’ve found to communicating well is to get out of your head. It’s tempting argue the way you find persuasive, make references you understand, and tell jokes you find funny. That’s great – if you’re talking to people like yourself. Communicating isn’t simply a matter of expressing a thought. It’s about having other people understand the message the way you want. And that requires us to take into account who we’re talking to and how they’re likely to take different statements. The “I’ll say what I think, damn the consequences!” attitude has never made much sense to me.

Before I’m accused of being an accomodationist – whatever that word means these days – I’m NOT saying we have to change the substance of our message to pander to people. Sometimes the desired goal IS to have others see us disrespecting their “sacred” cows. But there’s a difference between the substance of a point and the way to make it understood. It’s only rational to adjust our tactic to our audience – or audiences. Once we choose the substance of our message, we should figure out how to make people hear it. In a nutshell: make sure you’re being effective.

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Policing our language

I got together with some friends to play a game of Fiasco the other night. As the game-coordinator was explaining the rules, he said, “Okay, so half the dice are black and half the dice are white. During a scene, any one of you has the option to decide whether the scene concludes well or poorly for the central character — just indicate your choice by placing one of the dice in front of that character. A white die means the scene turns out well, and a black die means it turns out poorly.”

One of the other players interjected: “Could we please not use that color-coding system, where white means good, and black means bad?” The game coordinator quickly replied, “Oh, sure. Let’s switch it around.”

I understood what she was getting at, and it struck me as a case of political correctness carried to an extreme. People’s associations of white/good, black/bad pre-date any intermingling of white people and black people, so it seems absurd to attribute those associations to racism. A more plausible explanation is that the associations with white and black originated in the fact that the blackness of nighttime means we are colder and more vulnerable to danger than we are in the light of day. So this girl’s suggestion that the color coding system was offensive struck me, at the time, as overreaching.

But talking about it later with a friend I re-considered. Even if I’m right about the origins of the white/good black/bad associations, isn’t it still possible that those associations have a subtle impact on how we view white people vs. black people? If we’re used to associating white-the-color with goodness and black-the-color with badness, then is it so implausible to think we might unconsciously apply some of those associations to white-the-race and black-the-race, too?

The question also reminds me of the debate over gender-neutral pronouns. The idea of using “he” as the generic pronoun, to refer to a person of unspecified gender, has been accused of being sexist. Attempts to coin a new pronoun for use in such cases have so far been a failure (en? hir? hesh? hizer? hirm? sheehy?).

And my initial inclination is just to say, look, everyone understands that when we say “mankind” we mean all men AND women, and that when we say “fireman” we mean a firefighter of either gender. Right? I mean, why change the way we speak?

But now I’m a little more willing to believe that there could be a small effect of our language on the way we think. If the mental picture you get when you say “mankind” is of men, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think of women as incidental to the course of history? If your mental picture of a firemanr is always a man, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think men make better firefighters? Or to think it’s unfeminine to fight fires because you associate that activity with men (due to our language)?

I’m not even making the argument that this effect does exist, only that it’s a reasonable hypothesis. And I’m also not making the argument that it would be worth the trouble to rewire our language in the hopes of rewiring our brains. But I am acknowledging that it’s not entirely ludicrous, politically-correct histrionics to say that there could be a causal relationship between these words and our perceptions of the world.

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