Tag Archives: words

“The following contains…”

We put warning labels on all sorts of things.

I read fan fiction with some regularity, and it has been customary for some time at most places where one can post such stuff for the authors to include “trigger warnings.” Trigger warnings didn’t start on fan fiction sites, they were first used on forums where people discussed topics such as rape, rape prevention, domestic abuse, and so forth. The original intent was to alert people who suffer from psychological trauma that the story or commentary they were about to read contained intense and graphic description of one or more common areas of trauma. Psychologist refer to events that cause a person to relive a traumatic event a “trauma trigger.”

Now, one can understand that in a discussion dedicated to a topic such as domestic abuse, that from time to time descriptions of specific cases of abuse might come up. One can also understand that among the people who might be reading content on such a site will be people who have suffered actual domestic abuse, and they are seeking information, or recommendations, or just commiseration. So the original notion of “trigger warnings” in those sorts of places makes perfect sense.

One can also understand that in a fiction-publishing setting sometimes people will write stories which include the bad guys doing bad things to the hero, or to innocent bystanders who will need to be rescued by the hero. So if one is familiar with the notion of trigger warnings, it is understandable that one might decide such warnings are warranted on some stories.

But when you see a 700-ish word story sporting three dozen trigger warnings, one suspects that perhaps someone has lost sight of the purpose. I’m sorry, there is simply no way that in 700 words you can graphically describe that many different potentially traumatic events.

The problem is two-fold. People are worried that they’ll forget to warn someone about something, and someone will be traumatized, so they figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. On the other hand, a lot of people who don’t suffer from psychological trauma get all upset if they accidentally read something which is merely distasteful to them.

Now, I understand that people have a right to not look at anything they want. I have certainly gone on a rant or two about certain themes and topics in certain works of fiction. When I run into those topics, I may get angry or disgusted. I may literally throw the book across the room. But I do not have an actual panic attack. I do not relive an actual traumatic event.

I simply stop reading the stupid book.

That sentence right there is a great example of this phenomenon. There are people putting trigger warnings on stories merely because one character calls another “stupid” once. There are people who insist that trigger warnings are needed for one character calling another stupid once. There are people who insist that the word “stupid” is completely unacceptable in any civilized conversation—as unacceptable as reaching across the table and stabbing someone in the eye.

That is unintelligent, foolish, and utterly lacking in any understanding or sense of perspective.

In other words, that is a stupid.

Yes, it is extremely rude to call another person stupid. It is also true that one could write a scene where one character heaps a lot of abuse, including using the word stupid, on another character that could be intense enough to trigger a traumatic memory for a reader who survived an extended period of verbal and emotional abuse at some point in their past.

But if the word pops up in the dialog of a scene depicting two characters engaging in verbal banter, that story doesn’t deserve a trigger warning. What makes the other scene a trigger is not merely the inclusion of the word “stupid,” but the intensity of the entire abusive behavior of the character.

Getting back to a person’s right not to read something: such a right does not entitle you to a guarantee that you will never inadvertently see, read, or hear things that you find distasteful. You are not entitled to a world in which you only see what you want. Your fellow humans are not obligated to contort their own lives, words, or artistic expressions in such a way that your delicate sensibilities can never possibly be violated.

Courtesy dictates that we observe the niceties and comport ourselves in public and social situations in a manner that won’t cause harm or humiliation. But the obligation is to refrain from behavior and speech which could reasonably be expected to cause someone pain or embarrassment. Describing an autopsy at the dinner table can reasonably be expected to cause some people to feel nauseated, so it would be rude to do it. Telling that story of the drunken, debauched weekend you and some buddies had in college during the best man’s toast for one of those buddies, in front of parents and families of both the bride and groom, can reasonably be expected to cause embarrassment and perhaps instigate an argument between the couple-to-be, so it would be both rude and stupid to do it.

But mentioning that you are really sad that Dry Soda has discontinued their kumquat-flavored soda* in the presence of a friend of a friend who years ago had a beloved aunt die in a tragic kumquat-related accident, and mention of the fruit always makes the person break down into sobbing? It’s not at all reasonable for you to anticipate that, so you are not rude or insensitive for doing it.

And, let’s be real, here. Even if we accepted the notion that it’s reasonable to warn about a single instance of a single word, how could you possible do that? “Warning, mentions kumquats?” The warning itself would be the trigger!

* Seriously! I like the Blood Orange flavor which they brought out to replace it, but I really do miss the Kumquat Soda.

That’s not what nonplussed means

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to see movies any more. And another superhero film? I couldn’t be more nonplussed.”

I followed up with the person who posted this to make certain I understood them. They meant that they couldn’t care less about seeing another superhero movie. And they expressed amusement that I didn’t know what nonplussed meant.

I sent them a link to an actual definition.

They stopped talking to me.

It isn’t used often, and I’m quite certain that if the word “nonplussed” doesn’t go extinct altogether, that very soon the word will come to mean “not impressed, uninterested, or unmoved.”

But that’s almost the exact opposite of what it means.

nonplussed adjective, 1. filled with bewilderment, 2. perplexed completely, 3. dumbfounded, 4. rendered speechless or incapable of further action.

The word comes to English from a Latin phrase: non plus, literally “no more,” as in “nothing more to do.” According to Oxford, it first appeared in English in the late 1500s as a noun meaning, “a point at which no more can be done, a dead end.” Within a century it had come to mean a state of being so exasperated by an intolerable event or insoluble problem to the point of being overwhelmed—a point when one is ready to throw their hands in the air and shout, “I can’t take any more of this!”

As time went on, it frequently referred to a situation during an argument or conversation in which one person says something so unbelievable or mind boggling, that the other person just stares back, speechless, perhaps with their mouth hanging open in consternation.

I remember I used to see the word a lot in books I read during elementary and middle school. There would be a discussion going on between two or more characters, and eventually one of the characters, instead of replying to a particularly witty statement of the other, would be nonplussed. I remember trying to work out the meaning from the context, and being confused until I got hold of a dictionary. Then I became rather fond of the word.

I think the problem (besides the fact that people aren’t being taught Latin and Greek roots any more) is that the word doesn’t look like it is describing something as energetic and frantic as “being exasperated to the point of being overwhelmed.” Flabbergasted or dumbfounded are active states. When a person is in that frame of mind they do things like a double-take, or their mouth drops open and their eyes bug out.

Nonplussed looks like a much more laid back, almost contemplative word.

Which is a shame. Dumbfounded and flabbergasted are great words, don’t get me wrong, but neither conveys both the idea of being perplexed and at one’s wit’s end in quite the same way as nonplussed once did.

However, language is a living thing. So I know in the long run it’s a losing battle. Right now, at least half the readers will think it means the person is unconcerned and cool as a cucumber if you do use it.

And that’s a real shame.

That isn’t what irony means

The words “irony” and “ironic” get thrown around a lot in places that they shouldn’t.

This is not a pedantic rant asserting that words can only be used in the way prescribed in my favorite dictionary, or that the meanings of words never change. Words change over time as people use them in new and different ways. And what’s most important is whether or not the listeners understood what was meant, rather than whether a particular utterance followed someone’s notions about proper grammar and usage.

We will talk some other time about usage and the misuse of language (and about people who think they are correcting other people’s misuse when, in fact, they are the ones who don’t understand usage). No, today I want to talk about the abuse of the word irony.

My biggest dictionary with the magnifier
Checking with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a post by me if it weren’t at least a bit pedantic: the very oldest instance of the use of irony in the English language, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was in the year 1502. In that instance, it was describing a debate tactic by which a person pretended to believe one thing in order to engage a person in conversation and argue him around to the opposite belief. This is sometimes called Socratic Irony because it resembles a method Socrates used to teach and persuade.

Through the five hundred and eleven years since, irony’s meaning has expanded to include any situation in which someone says or acts the exact opposite of what is actually meant or expected. Similar to sarcasm, though sarcasm more often has a malicious intent. In a play or other work of fiction when the audience is made to see an incongruity between the situation and the words or actions of the characters and the characters are unaware of the incongruity we call that dramatic irony. Irony is usually poignant, rather than mocking.

In the last few decades the types of incongruences that have been described as ironic have become broader, to the point where virtually any incongruity at all gets called ironic.

But there have to be lines. Otherwise why do we need the word irony at all? I believe, in order for an action to be ironic that the incongruity has to have something to do with either the intention of the person performing the act or the expectation of the people who will see it. Preferably both.

So while it might be ironic to name an enormous dog Tiny, it is not ironic for someone who considers themself a sophisticated intellectual to name their dog Cat. One can argue the second one a couple of ways, but the main reason it isn’t ironic is that anyone who literally thinks of oneself as a sophisticated intellectual is exactly the sort of pretentious prat to do something like name a dog Cat and think he’s being clever.

A beard can’t be ironic. No matter how much that pretentious young man you met at the coffee shop insists that it is. His facial hair can be sexy, ugly, well-trimmed, embarrassing, or a number of other adjectives, but it can’t be ironic. People don’t have sufficiently specific expectations about the facial hair of strangers for any beard incongruity to qualify as ironic.

If you’re talking about something, and then that thing happens, that is not ironic. It’s a coincidence, which is a form of congruity. Irony is about incongruities, not congruities.

If you say something stupidly offensive and then:

  • people react with more hostility and scorn than you expected, you insist that you were right,
  • but then when that doesn’t work you insist you were misquoted,
  • but evidence to the contrary arrives, so you insist you were joking,
  • then when no one finds it funny but rather even more scorn you for it,

…you can’t claim that you were being ironic. Sorry, if you had originally meant the opposite of your actual words, that would have been your first excuse, not your fourth.

Finally, if you are an entertainer who does that, and then your career takes a nosedive? That’s not irony. That’s called just desserts. And we’re not talking about pie and ice cream

Explaining my job using only the 1000 most commonly used English words

A few weeks back the xkcd web comic posted a cartoon illustrating how a rocket works using only the 1000 most commonly used words in English. This kicked off the Up Goer Five challenge: describe your job using only words from that list. It’s a lot harder than you might think:

I write and draw to explain hard-to-understand things like computers.

I talk to people who make the hard-to-understand things and figure out how to explain the things to people who have to use the things. I talk to people who have to use the things to find out how they use the things. I show the people who make the things how to make the things easier to understand and use.

I figure out how to write stuff and draw stuff once but use it in many places in a way that if we change it one place it changes at all the other places. I figure out how to make the stuff we write and draw once that appears in many places change in ways that make sense in each place it is used, but not change when it isn’t supposed to.

I figure out where the stuff we write and draw is seen. I figure out how to make the stuff we write and draw be in the places it should be without us doing it each time. I figure out where people who need the stuff we write and draw will look for it. I figure out how to make the stuff we write and draw be in the place people who need it will look for it. I figure out how to keep the stuff we write and draw that most people don’t need out of their way but still easy for the people who need it to find. If figure out how to put the stuff we write and draw where we can find it quickly when we need to change it.

I make the things that makes all the stuff we write and draw do all these things. I keep the things I make working. I fix the things I make when they don’t work. I figure out why other things made by other people but that we have to use are not working, and then figure out how to make them do what we want even though they were never meant to do that.

I do things with words most people don’t know that words can do. If I do it right, the people who use them don’t even realize the words are doing the things. My job is not to make the things I do be noticed. My job is to help people who use the hard-to-explain things know how to use them without knowing they are learning.

This was hard because what I do is extremely meta. The words “information,” “arrange,” “organize,” “design” can’t be used. Even the word “itself” is unavailable, so when I wanted to write that the things we write and draw change themselves depending on where they are being seen, I couldn’t. Oh, and “tool” isn’t allowed. Anyway,

You can try it yourself here.

Names, names, names

In the last two weeks I’ve gotten into at least three conversations with friends and acquaintances about names. Then a long-distance friend explained his names in response to a writing prompt, and I figured the universe was trying to tell me something.

I’ve had a bunch of different names, some given names, some nicknames, some family variants of names, and then there’s an interesting twist on the legal names. Probably best to start at the beginning.

Continue reading Names, names, names

Poultry, domestic fowl, or chicken?

As the poster says, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

In 1066 William II of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, effectively conquering England (though it took him several more years to secure his victory). Among the changes William the Conqueror wrought on English society was to place a number of his French and Norman allies into positions of power throughout the kingdom, and Norman French became the language of the elite.

This is one of the reasons English has a number of pairs of nouns—one with an Old French root, the other with a Saxon root—which mean the same thing, but one word in the pair is thought to be more formal or fancy and the other casual. Examples include poultry and chicken, purchase and buy, or scarlet and red.

Not all of the words borrowed from French happened at that time. With only the narrow English Channel separating the isle of Great Britain from France, English had no shortage of opportunities to mug French for some new words or phrases. And that’s just one language. Since speakers of Ænglisc started raising families in the British Isles in the 4th or 5th Century, we’ve stolen from every language we could. Leaving us with an embarrassment of riches in the synonym department.

This wealth of words with similar meanings leads some writers into excess, with the thesaurus aiding and abetting their literary crimes. The most noticed version of this crime is the Dialog Attribution Transgression. It’s dialog where John exclaims, Sue retorts, Jim rejoins, Walter observes, and so forth. When what the author really means is that John said one thing, then Sue said another, then Jim said something, and finally Walter said something.

It’s wonderful that the language has all these verbs that can describe a person speaking, but when every line of dialog uses a different verb, the reader stops following the story and wonders which verb you’re going to resort to, next. The author does this because he or she thinks that the repeated appearance of the word “said” is going to bother the reader. The mistake here is misunderstanding what is important in a fictional depiction of a conversation. The most important thing is what the characters actually say. The next most important thing is to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Most of the time, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth are not even of tertiary importance. If you write the dialog correctly, the reader will infer a lot of those things just from the rhythm of the sentences.

Unfortunately, you only learn to do that by practicing a lot. And that takes time.

It’s perfectly all right to use some of those other verbs sparingly. For example, if there’s a tense conservation happening between a couple of characters, one character threatening the other, the threatened person may very well mutter resentfully, “For now…” or “You’ll be sorry” at the end. The fact that the person is muttering it, adding it as a threat of his own that he mostly doesn’t want to be overheard is probably important to the plot. But they really need to be reserved for situations where how someone says something is important to the story.

Dialog attribution isn’t the only place this sort of literary crime can occur. British author Simon Winchester likes to tell the tale of a student who, when assigned to write an essay describing how to do something, chose to write about how to transplant flowers, and apparently decided that saying one would need to wash their hands afterward, because their fingers would be dirty just didn’t sound academic enough. So he poked around in the thesaurus looking for other words that meant dirty (or earthy, as they would say in England), which eventually led him to refer to the need to wash one’s “chthonic fingers.” Chthonic is usually defined as “of or related to the underworld,” and thus often has demonic and even Lovecraftian connotations. It appears as a synonym for earth-related words because it originally referred to thing of or related to being buried or otherwise under the ground, and in myth the metaphorical afterlife was said to literally be deep underground.

My own tale, as an editor, was a writer who submitted a science fiction story set on a very inhospitable planet. After spending a paragraph describing just how deadly the planet’s atmosphere was, the author then transitioned to talking about some other aspect of the planet with the phrase, “…beneath that empyrean envelope…” Empyrean is a word that comes to English ultimately from Greek by way of Latin. And depending on where you look it up, it is defined as angelic, divine, God’s dwelling place, or the highest heaven in certain ancient cosmologies. In other words, heavenly. Not exactly a word that springs to mind for an atmosphere that will burn your skin off within seconds of contact, which seems more hellish. The writer had gone to a thesaurus, beginning with “sky” and looking up other words listed there until he found this one. Which he didn’t look up in a dictionary, he just typed it in and kept going. That’s a particularly bad idea with an unfamiliar synonym of a synonym of a synonym.

A lot of aspiring writers come at the craft with the notion that great writers know a lot about words, and therefore if you want to be good, you need to use a lot of words. But first, you have to be sure you know what the word means, including uncommon connotations. A word by itself has a lot of different meanings. In context, that meaning narrows. Which is why what writers really need to know a lot about is sentences.

Howsoever, that is a digression to be cogitated during a different diurnal cycle.

Or should I just say, a topic for another day?

When words move you

There’s this silly “alternate weekly” here in Seattle, the Stranger, that I read all the time. I admit, sometimes I read it to see what crazy thing one of them is going to say this time. But I also read it because several of the writers are good, and even when they aren’t, they often cover stories no one else does. The story I’m about the link for you was covered by lots of people. It was about a horrific double-rape, murder and attempted murder. About a pair of women waking up, one with a knife to her throat, the evening after they had a fitting for the dresses for their commitment ceremony. Only one of the women survived, and eventually she testified before a jury about that night.

Eli Sanders wrote a series of stories about the crime, the investigation, the perpetrator, and the process of how we, as a society, investigate and handle horrific crimes. All of the stories were good, but he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the tale of testimony the surviving partner eventually was able to give.

He called it, The Bravest Woman in Seattle. I cried the first time I read it last summer. I cried when I tried to explain to someone about the story that made me cry. I cried when I read again today after learning it had won a Pulitzer. I cried when I tried to tell Michael the link I was looking for.

Back in the days I was writing for college newspapers and thinking of possibly going into journalism as a career, that’s the kind of story you hoped someday you would get to tell.