I am continually amused at how strangely our minds work. For example, a few weeks ago a friend was talking about crime being up in his neighborhood. I expressed surprise and mentioned that just the day before I had listened to a story on NPR about how overall crime has gone down quite a bit during the pandemic, with a few specific exceptions, such as property crimes in commercial building that are mostly deserted because so many white collar workers are working from home.
This prompted the friend to specify that by crime what he meant was specifically people breaking into cars. Which of course is precisely the type of crime that the NPR story said was the exception: property crimes that are less risky than usual because people are staying inside. It took me a minute of thinking to realize that car prowls would also be up, during which time I rambled more about the overall crime rates being down, and how I would only use the phrase “crime is up” if it were multiple categories of crime—but then I am rather pedantic.
The next morning I was getting a cup of coffee while my work laptop was booting up in the other room, and as has become my habit, I paused at the dining room window to look down and confirm that our car was still parked in our spot, windows intact and so on.
Which is when I had to laugh at myself.
See, that specific habit started back in late March when I read a news story that the local police departments had found a number of abandoned cars that the owners hadn’t even realized had been stolen because people were staying home and many couldn’t see their driveway from most windows in their home. Which is when I started the habit of every morning looking out the window to confirm our car was there.
Checking the car every morning had become such a habit that the reason had fallen off the normal shelves of memory and then sunk into the mist in the back of my mind. Such that even when my friend had mentioned car prowls being on the increase, it didn’t remind me of that news story. You would think that one’s memory would correlate such things. But apparently not.
This made me think about something I was reading on an acquaintance’s blog recently. A couple weeks ago we learned that people in the White House made the explicit decision (and documented the discussion) that since the early COVID outbreaks were in Blue States, that the Feds didn’t need to do anything. All the people dying would be in states that will never vote for Trump, anyway, and Trump could blame the democratic governors of those states.
That’s genocide. That is a war crime. That is a decision to let voters you perceive as not yours die from a preventable cause.
And the President only changed his tune and started urging people to at least wear masks when the virus spread to Red States. There was even a graphic that showed that the highest COVID deaths were happening in districts that previously voted for him.
And while several of us commented on that at the time (some of us with great outrage…) it barely lasted as a blip in the national media consciousness. Let alone most of the public. Because since Day One this administration has done many illegal and immoral and outrageous things. Those of us who care literally can’t keep up. How do we expect people who aren’t already news junkies to keep up?
The outrage and the illegality became this constant stream and eventually all of it fades to just being white noise. Crap is pushed from our collective consciousness by the ever-growing stream of more crap.
And I wish I had a solution or an answer to this problem. I just feel like the person implied in the meme I attached above: laying on the ground damaged from the fall, looking up at the cats who pushed me, stunned and unsure how to proceed.
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.”