Before I get into the bulk of this post, a disclaimor: I am the king of making typos. And the kinds of typos I make include using a completely wrong word (which is itself spelled correctly) in some places, in addition to what certain types of overly pedantic people sometimes insist is the only thing one should call a typo (hitting a letter that is on a key adjacent to the one that you meant). There is also the variant of me sometimes typing a different form of the word than is correct in the sentence (loaded instead of loads or load, for instance). Those kinds of typographical errors are not uncommon in people who type at higher than average speeds, by the way (I used to have a link to a study about it, but now it seems to no longer be on the web). When I learned how to type, back around 1970, the method was to get the muscle memory to type entire words. For instance, when I go to type the word “instance” I do not think, “i… n… s… t… a… n… c… e…” — I just think “instance” and my fingers go.
All of that is to say that I’m embarking on some commentary about language, and there will no doubt be an embarrassing and hilarious typo or two in the blog. If you feel the need to point it out, just don’t be a jerk about it, okay?
I don’t want to talk about typing and spelling, per se, today, but rather certain phenomenon about the way people perceive and use language that is often lumped in with spelling, grammar, et cetera.
What got me thinking about this was a particular short conversation on twitter this weekend. A person noted that their local Walmart had a huge banner up that said “The Fourth of July this year is Thursday July 4.” Which struck him as a particularly dumb thing to put on a banner. I pointed out that at more than one time in my life I have been in a conversation where another person asked, in all seriousness, “What date is the Fourth of July?” One of the people who has done that more than once is a relative—a relative who is known in the family for asking and doing things that are not well thought out, let’s say.
But it isn’t that the people who ask that question are ignorant or stupid—they are simply processing the language in a different way than some of us do. When someone like my online acquaintance or myself sees the phrase “Fourth of July” we process it mentally as “the day in July which comes immediately after the third and immediately preceeding the fifth.” Because we see the words and associate them with the individual and literal definitions of each word.
But for some people, the “Fourth of July” is not perceived as a string of words—it is processed as a single word. By which I mean, “Any of the sequences of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognized by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech” (to quote Oxford). Yes, it is written out and it originated as a string of three words, but these people encountered the phrase often enough in their earlier years, before they learned to spell, always together, so that their brain processed it as a single word, “forthuvjoolie” that in the United States refers to the holiday in the middle of summer during which we celebrate the Declaration of Independence by holding picnics and barbecues and eventually shooting off a bunch of fireworks.
And it doesn’t matter that the person has subsequently learned that the word which they think of as a single noun synonymous with “the Independence Day Holiday” is actually spelled “Fourth of July.” On their deepest level of understanding, they conceive of it as a single word.
There is also the complication that, well, sometimes, in certain circumstances, the “Fourth of July” holiday is observed on a day other than the fourth. Because of the Monday Holiday Act (and a lot of corporate policies), government offices and many businesses (including banks) will be closed for business on Monday the fifth or Monday the sixth if the holiday happens to fall on a Saturday or Sunday that year. Nobody moves the barbecues and fireworks to Monday when that happens, but there are other holidays that we observe on a Monday rather than the anniversary of their traditional date, and all of that can get conceptually tied up in people’s minds.
It is especially true if the person in question, like the relative I mentioned above, has come to expect people to correct her all the time because she misunderstands, misremembers, or just gets details mixed up. Especially when a portion of their lives was spent with an abusive parent, partner, et cetera. For someone like that, the question “What date is the Fourth of July?” has an element of defensiveness to it. There is an implied, “I know that I should know this, and please don’t bite my head off for asking what you think of as a stupid question. I just want to make certain I have it right.”
Because people aren’t computers. Our neurological system isn’t naturally compartmentalized. And we all have learned things in different ways both because our brains don’t all work exactly the same way, and because our experiences during formative years were not identical.
Think of it this way: a couple weeks ago I laughed really hard during a panel at the science fiction convention I was attending when a panelist, who has multiple graduate degrees and works in a language related field, mentioned how it wasn’t until his teen years that he realized that the word “rendezvous” that people used to mean a meeting at an appointed time and/or place was exactly the same word as the one he pronounced in his head as “ron-DEZZ-voys” which also meant to meet up. I laughed because that was one of those mistakes I made as a kid, too. Because I encountered the word in print and either inferred the meaning from the context, or if I did look it up in a dictionary, didn’t parse out the pronunciation notation.
Throw in a very slight tendency toward dyslexia, and I leave as an exercise for the reader to parse out why I ended up being laughed at in school one day when I talked about a character being “detter-minded.”