Monday, August 13, 2012

About talking at cross-purposes

Dear Passerby,

One of the weird things about being a Humptydumpty Mathematician is that you very quickly get used to the idea (so quickly that you usually don't think about it) that the meaning of a word --- the signification of a symbol --- is essentially inseparable from its use.

Once we have this hammer in our grasp, we may go hunting for nails; let me pry some up and we'll see if it's in any way handy.

∙ Q: How much is a dollar? A: What you can buy with it 1.
∙ Q: How do you know your own name? A: Mum and Dad are always calling it out when they want you.
∙ Q: What men are most gay? AHAH! A word was once for nursery-rhyme joy, simple and innocent in its frivolity --- a perfectly decent word. A ghetto (there's another one) assemblage distinguished by a particular unhappy vice of complications took up the adjective as a name for itself, in fact as a lie; being used enough in the new way, the lie makes the old nursery rhymes illegible.
∙ "... I do not think it means what you think it means."

The present post was occasioned by two recent publications. The first was from the ever-fascinating "EDWARD" videos -- you know, the "notions found by us worthy of broader consideration" (or was it "diseases worth spreading"? I can't be sure...). This one told stories of three English expressions, "bold as Brass", (did you know that one ought to be capitalized? I didn't!) "President of the United States", and ... well, if I mentioned the other, it'd be too easy; and he made much of how small a role their early etymology seems to play in later usage --- the understood meaning --- of most current currency.

The other was a chilling opinion posted at The Guardian3, written by Ewan Morrison. (If you go hunting for this, be warned of alarming and indeed sad quotations in degraded language). But since, as the two or three regulars will know, I've a passing cordial acquaintance with Aunty Seraphic, Morrison's piece has an even more chilling character for me than perhaps for others.

This is because of his (modo conventional, I gather) use of the otherwise innocent word "single". By the remaining context, one discovers that Morrison --- as the Capitalists he purports to describe --- uses "single" to speak of people much as dietetic pseudo-chemists use the word "free radical"2 to speak of O⁻ ions: they wander about having strange interactions with whatever they meet, they do not form lasting bonds, and tend to break-up pre-existing connections. And, for the "capitalists", this is a desirable thing. In other words, Morrison inadvertently contends that something sought by unscrupulous maximizers-of-something is potentially to be confused with something that Christian folk of good will have at least temporarily to be at peace with and which some of them may well embrace seriously as for the Kingdom of Heaven. Though having the same name, they are nonetheless different things, as we can tell by the different ways the words are used, in this case by the different contexts they are permitted in.

I don't particularly mind that "President", upon its bureaucratic and procedural core became encrusted with the wealth of half a continent and the gory glory of the other finest navy in the world; but when we are become so sloppy in our usage that it is nearly impossible to talk of virtue, surely it cannot be long before it is impossible to talk?

Here endeth the Lamentation. Mondays, I tell you...

viator quidam

For Historians: Though earlier posts (mostly of the "nonsense" sort) may in time be annoted "wordsy", this is the first with that label in mind.

1) This over-simplification has an important dual: how much is a dollar to you, which is unanswered by "how might I persuade you to give that dollar to me?" The reservation of a thing is an important aspect of its use, of course.
2) I cannot advise worry about free radicals. "Antioxidants" are all used as preservatives, which actually means they make food less edible.
3) This is supposed to be one of the bad papers, yes? Perhaps the publishers are editorial communists? Not that communists ever did much for families either... NOTE: Brass (we're on a first-name basis) was an early champion for freedom of the press, before the thriteen colonies threw off being colonies, but when the marrying crop of famers in Lower Canada didn't remember ever being French subjects.


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