November 30th, 2009

Captive Dreams

Quote of the Day

Words That Think For Us

Today's quote is an extended passage warning us of the degradation of language; but not the way you might at first suppose.

No words are more typical of our moral culture than “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.” They seem bland, gentle even, yet they carry the full force of official power. When you hear them, you feel that you are being tied up with little pieces of soft string.

Inappropriate and unacceptable began their modern careers in the 1980s as part of the jargon of political correctness. They have more or less replaced a number of older, more exact terms: coarse, tactless, vulgar, lewd. They encompass most of what would formerly have been called “improper” or “indecent.” An affair between a teacher and a pupil that was once improper is now inappropriate; a once indecent joke is now unacceptable.

This linguistic shift is revealing. Improper and indecent express moral judgements, whereas inappropriate and unacceptable suggest breaches of some purely social or professional convention. Such “non-judgemental” forms of speech are tailored to a society wary of explicit moral language. As liberal pluralists, we seek only adherence to rules of the game, not agreement on fundamentals. What was once an offence against decency must be recast as something akin to a faux pas.

But this new, neutralised language does not spell any increase in freedom. When I call your action indecent, I state a fact that can be controverted. When I call it inappropriate, I invoke an institutional context—one which, by implication, I know better than you. Who can gainsay the Lord Chamberlain when he pronounces it “inappropriate” to wear jeans to the Queen’s garden party? This is what makes the new idiom so sinister. Calling your action indecent appeals to you as a human being; calling it inappropriate asserts official power.
--Edward Skidelsky, Prospect Magazine 18 Nov 2009
Captive Dreams

How Do You Do?

Salvete Ubiquaque

Greeting people on the telephone was a problem, esp. in the early years when connections were sometimes unreliable. People wished to avoid the embarrassment of giving an intimate greeting to the wrong person or any sort of greeting to a dead line. Alexander Graham Bell used the nautical word "Ahoy!" but it did not catch on. The British came up with "Are you there?" but after a while you could assume that they were and it began to sound silly. The ferry-boat hail "Hail O!" which may have come from the Old English heolan, or "hail" or "hale!/health!", a term which survives only in the Christmas greeting "Waes hael!" (wassail). (To which the proper response is "Trink hael!") We may loosely translate this as "What health?" (How ya doin'?) and "I'll drink to that!" Saxons did not need much excuse to go for the mead bowl. But we digress.

Hail! became Hello. It was a way of announcing that there was a presence on the receiving end before the caller would ask, "May I speak to so-and-so." IOW it meant, go ahead start talking it's your nickel. But such a vulgar word did not gain acceptance right away. Emily Post was appalled. So were all proper folks. The way to begin a conversation was to say "How do you do?" (Waes hael!) or "Good morning/day/evening" as the time of day permitted. But this did not address the conundrum of the telephone user: how did you know there was anyone on the receiving end to hear the greeting?

Pro Hello

"The telephone has made the word 'hello' a universal greeting in every place on the globe where language is spoken by wire . . . every telephone message in all languages is preceded by the great American 'hello.'"
-- Telephone Magazine 1903

"Even the trivial salutation which the telephone has lately created and claimed for its peculiar use—'Hello, hello!'—seems to me to have a kind of fitness and fascination. It is like a thoroughbred bulldog, ugly enough to be attractive. There is a lively, concentrated, electric air about it. It makes courtesy wait upon dispatch, and reminds us that we live in an age when it is necessary to be wide awake."
-- Henry van Dyke

Con Hello

"You would not think of greeting a customer at the front door, particularly one whom you had never seen before, by saying 'Hello.' What is good usage in face to face conversation is good usage in telephone conversations."
-- Rotarian magazine, 1916

Throwing in the towel

"On very informal occasions, it is the present fashion to greet an intimate friend with 'Hello!' This seemingly vulgar salutation is made acceptable by the tone in which it is said. To shout 'Hullow!' is vulgar, but 'Hello, Mary' or 'How 'do John,' each spoken in an ordinary tone of voice, sound much the same. But remember that the 'Hello' is spoken, not called out, and never used except between intimate friends who call each other by the first name."
-- Emily Post, 1920s
Captive Dreams

Brains R Us

This is Good News For Some of Us

Forget about all those big-brained descendants of ours in all those olf skiffy stories.

Any woman trying to give birth to one of them would die. But the Cult of the Cerebral imagined that "evolution" would move us to bigger and bigger brains because, well, brain is mind, right?

But now it seems that the modern brain is about 10% smaller than it was 10,000 years ago. That means either that a) brain size has no relationship to intelligence or b) we ain't as smart as we think we are.,2933,575091,00.html

So what is the future of human evolution?

Selective pressure may favor webbing between the first and second fingers:

Or perhaps an extra finger for CTR-ALT-DEL:

But then the pinky is not all that useful a digit, and may disappear the way the horse's extra toes disappeared, or cave fish lose their eyes:

See the contest at: