Monday, November 24, 2008

The Best Proof That We Need To Think More About What We Say

If you ever stop to just think about how we use language, we're all stupid.

Not just because we do things without thinking, like "Anonymous" did in leaving a second comment on my post about The Best Decade For Style. Here's the comment, in its entirety:

Wow, the pictures you picked out really do little justice for your "blog". The pic for 1920 is from the 40s, zoot suits got popular at the time. Also how is 1940s fashion boring? Its chic, mysterious, and sophisticated.

I can overlook the misuse of "Its" instead of "It's," but what I don't understand is why "blog" is quotation marks. Is there a dispute that this is, in fact, a "blog?"

Anyway, misused quotation marks are not the biggest problem facing the world today; the biggest problem facing the world today is misusing other linguistic elements, like sayings. We misuse sayings all the time. Like "hoist on your own petard." Just think how many times you've misused that saying, probably today alone.

People still say that, right? People still say that other people are hoist on their own petard, right? Because I say it, and I'm a person. Probably. Maybe I'm a "person."

If you, like me, do say people are hoist on their own petard, then you, unlike me, probably have no idea what that saying actually means. You probably have no idea what it actually means because you probably did not do what I did, which is, years ago, actually go to the library and look up a "petard" and see what it was.

That's the kind of exciting fellow I am. Or "fellow."

I didn't make a special trip to the library; I went there on business, to look things up. That was in the olden days (2002) when I didn't use the Internet to look things up as much as I do now, which is constantly. I constantly use the Internet to look things up nowadays. So does everyone else, it seems. I saw a video, forwarded to me by my brother, that said something like 27,000,000,000 questions are asked each day on Google.

Google, by the way, lets you search in Klingon. Why? I don't know. Or maybe I should say it lets "you" "search" in "Klingon."

The video told me that there were 27,000,000,000,000 questions asked each day, or minute, or something, on Google. It was full of interesting little facts, or "facts," like that -- all listed without attribution or source and just taken to be true. All these little fact-lets floating around in a video of unknown provenance, with no source for those facts.

I was impressed by the fact-lets, as was everyone else in the email chain. While I was not hte only one who was impressed by it, I was the only one who said "Where do all these fact-lets come from? Who's responsible for proving these right or wrong?"

That's a question that isn't very often asked these days. Even though each day there are more questions asked by humans of Google in a single minute than there were questions asked by humans total in all the years before Google existed...

...How do I know? Because I just made that up. But it sounds true, doesn't it? It sounds "true." And as Stephen Colbert pointed out so long ago that it's been forgotten until I just now brought it back into your memory, these days, if something feels true then it probably is true, or deemed to be true. That's part of the problem with language, and our use of it -- we don't care if things are true and correct (or "true," and "correct") so long as they feel like what we want to say. Everybody's saying stuff, and nobody's bothering to ask if what everybody's saying is actually correct. 27,000,000,000 questions asked a minute -- probably a lot of them asked in Klingon-- and nobody is asking if things are correct.

Or even if things are "correct."

That was why, when I was at the library on other business, I stopped to look up what "hoist on your own petard" meant. I stopped because (a) I happened to walk by a shelf that had a book about the origins of common sayings and (b) because I am the kind of inquisitive person that stops to think is this correct.

So I looked it up. I looked up what it meant to be "hoist on one's own petard," and I learned that a "petard" was box- or bell-shaped device used to blow a hole in the wall of the opponent's structure during war (presumably to let people get in and start killing other people.)

Now, I had always used "hoist on one's own petard" to mean caught in a trap of your own making, or caught up in a rule you made up yourself, like when I announced one night that from now on, the round pizza-pan could not go in the dishwasher because it gets jammed in there and it makes it impossible for me to pull the tray of dishes out easily, so whoever was doing the dishes was responsible, henceforth, for hand-washing the pizza pan... only to then be the one the next night who had to do the dishes, and the round pizza pan was one of the dishes. I was, I ruefully thought to myself, hoist on my own petard.

I also literally that night thought to myself that my thoughts about how I was hoist on my own petard were rueful. That's the kind of inner monologue I have: my inner monologue describes my inner monologue.

But was I really "hoist on my own petard?" Probably not -- because someone who was "hoist" on his own "petard" would not have a minor inconvenience result from the device; someone who was "hoist" on his own "petard" would be blown to smithereens.

Or blown to "smithereens."

A petard was, after all, an explosive device. If you were hoist on your own petard, you would not, in all likelihood, be scrubbing a pizza pan and shaking your head ruefully. You would be getting scraped off of people's armored visors.

So I propose that from here on out, we all use hoist on your own petard in only those situations in which it is truly appropriate -- when something really bad has happened to a person, something way worse than washing a pizza pan. Something like having to clean out the refrigerator, maybe. Something that is really worthy of a phrase that used to describe someone being accidentally blown up by a thing that he or she intended to smash a whole in a wall. (And on that note, how bloodthirsty was Shakespeare, to describe that as "sport," when he said:

"For tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his owne petar".

(Used in Hamlet.) People played rough in the Middle Ages. Or whenever it was Shakespeare supposedly existed.

Which brings me to the actual phrase I want to discuss, the one that people actually do misuse because it's incorrect, and that phrase is this:

What you don't know can't hurt you.

I used that the other night, and then I paused, as I am prone to doing, and I thought about what I'd just said. Then I thought about whether there is ever a time that the saying "What you don't know can't hurt you" is true.

Here's the conditions precedent to that saying:

(A) There is something that could in theory hurt you.
(B) You don't know about that thing.

And if those two are true, then, and only then, is the saying possibly true, that the thing can't hurt you.

But how can that ever be true? How is that saying even logically possible? How did it infiltrate our language? Because what you don't know is, I think far more likely to hurt you than those things that you do know.

Picture the universe of things that can hurt you. I'll narrow them down to three representative subjects. The three things that can hurt you, as representatives of all the things that could hurt you, are these:

(A) Cholesterol.
(B) Your significant other cheating on you.
(C) A Frisbee flying through the air in your direction.

Those three things more or less stand for all the categories of things that can possibly hurt you. Now, with those three representatives, let's ask ourselves whether each is theoretically capable of causing us harm even if we don't know about them.

Cholesterol? I'm not even sure what cholesterol is -- but without knowing what it is or how it gets into me (or on me, or near me, however it affects me) I know that cholesterol can harm me, because I see Cheerios' commercials telling me that if I eat Cheerios I'll lower my cholesterol, and that's apparently a good thing. I also see scary commercials telling me about people who were in the prime of health and then were struck down by a heart attack which occurred at the same time as a stroke which took place while they were being run down by a dirigible, all because they had cholesterol. So bad things can happen to me even though I'm not sure what cholesterol is, and what I don't know CAN hurt me.

How about a significant other cheating on me, but I don't know it. In this context, the saying suggests that emotionally speaking, relationshipally speaking, I'm okay as long as I don't know my husband/wife/girlfriend/Klingon is making out with someone else. Well, how is that true? I'm living in a sham of a relationship, I'm embarrassed and diminshed in at least the eyes of two other people (my Klingon and my Klingon's secret squeeze), and I'm missing out on tender, intimate moments with my Klingon. I don't know my Klingon is, shall we say, Deep-Space Nining someone else, but I'm still losing something.

And finally, the Frisbee in the air heading my way. This is the real proof that the expression is dead wrong, isn't it?

Because if I know about the Frisbee, I can duck or catch it. (In my case, I'd likely duck.) But if I don't know, then I'm getting bonked, and not in the good Deep-Space Nining kind of way, but in the bad Who-threw-that-stupid-thing kind of way.

It's lucky for me, and humanity, that I stopped to think (or "think") about that phrase, because it has profound implications for us all. More profound, even, (but barely) than the minimization of how bad it would be to be hoist on one's own petard; saying what you don't know can't hurt you, which exists as The Best Proof That We Need To Think More About What We Say, invites us to be ignorant of what's going on as a method of safety. If that saying is true, then the best possible course of action would be to never know anything at all, because then nothing could hurt us. Ignorance would become invulnerability, leading the human race into a decline in which we stop asking 27,000,000,000 questions a minute, stop looking up what a "petard" was when we're at the library, and stop thinking about how we use language at all. That can't be where we want to be headed as a species, can it? That's the exact opposite of where we've come from, the exact opposite of what we've been doing for 14 billion years or so (as estimated by Paul Simon), the exact opposite of what our goal as people should be. We should be trying to increase our knowledge, not decrease it. We should be saying "What you don't know might kill you quicker than a petard" or something like that. Maybe "What you don't know will likely hurt you a lot."

It's not too late to change. Just make sure that from here on out, you avoid saying things like what you don't know can't hurt you. Use one of my alternate phrases, instead. And then think about the other things you say, and before you say them, ask whether they make sense, too.

Or, maybe, whether they make "sense."

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