Friday, April 8, 2011

This Might Make Your Life a Little Easier

Roald Dahl has an amusing short story about a young priest who comes down with a mysterious affliction that causes him to pronounce the most important word in every sentence he speaks backward. This results in sermons praising the Almighty "Dog," pleas to the congregation to "krap" their cars more considerately, and admonitions to "pis" the Communion wine. The humor, of course, is that all of these words sound like other English words whose meanings are absurd, offensive and inappropriate in the context.

The story of the priest is pure fantasy, naturally, but some people actually live in this kind of world, though to a lesser extent. All professions have specialized jargon, and often that jargon is developed by attaching an uncommon meaning to a common word. The word "spin" means something different to a journalist versus a figure skater versus a physicist, and none of them mean what the man on the street means when he says "spin."

Usually these meanings are so disparate from the norm, you won't find yourself confused for more than a moment. When the physicist's wife is choosing his tie, he doesn't mistake her question about the color for a question about quarks. But, in some cases, the jargon is so entrenched in your mind, that you find yourself utterly lost in it, and you start thinking that the people around you are spouting all kinds of nonsense when they're really just using words like normal people and you're the weird one.

This might happen if, say, you study, live, and promote a philosophical system with a whole slew of unique and controversial definitions for common terms. Terms like purpose, honesty, integrity, selfishness, greed, happiness, productivity, rationality, etc. Or one that coins a bunch of new terms, like rational faculty, central purpose, and floating abstraction. And not only are you using a strange new language, you are also using it much more precisely than people commonly would. That could seriously fuck up your ability to communicate with a normal human.

You get so used to hearing and speaking in this way, that it becomes second nature to you. You speak it; your friends speak it; you write it on your blog and read it on other blogs. You forget what normal language sounds like and what standard meanings are. You get used to throwing around terms like "comprachicos" and making jokes about tables, and it's all hunky-dory because you're all on the same page.

Then one day you find yourself prattling on about your "CPL" or your "low crow" in front of normal people, who all stare at you like you're an alien with a malfunctioning babelfish, which is basically what you are.

It's not like I'm speaking from personal experience or anything. 

You are the one speaking a foreign language. You're the one with the weird terminology and revolutionary ideas. It's your job to remember who your audience is, so speak goddamn English, will you?

It's not just when speaking that you need to be careful. Specialized jargon can seriously mess with your listening comprehension as well. People sound like they're saying all kinds of crazy shit when you forget to turn on your jargon filter. If you aren't careful, you'll end up chasing all kinds of ridiculous "hay-men" (they're like straw-men*, but not dishonest) instead of addressing the real issues.

The fact of the matter is: most people don't talk like us (that's Objectivists, in case you missed that). I'm not saying you have to like it, or approve of it, or even accept it, but you do have to understand it. Otherwise you will waste a whole lot of time freaking out every time someone uses "pragmatic" as a compliment or a 9-11 firefighter is lauded for "selflessness."

Because I really am here to help, I've compiled a short but hopefully useful guide to translating some common terms that tend to get mistranslated by we O'ists.

The Normal Person Lexicon
Updated on occasion by S. Misanthrope

This never, ever means what we think it means.
What they don't mean: the only rights-respecting political system
What they do mean: usually either an economic system in which capital is privately owned by a few and everyone else is a poor oppressed worker, or the economic system America currently has

What they don't mean: acknowledging that one cannot fake reality
What they do mean: not lying
Come to think on it, that's actually what a lot of Objectivists mean.

There are quite a few meanings for this one, but none line up with the one we use.
What they don't mean: derived from reality, validated by reason, evaluated according to a rational standard of value
What they do mean: either impartially logical or absolute and definite, independent of personal taste, judgment or opinion

As with many of these terms, what normal people mean here is something between what you think they mean and something that's actually not so bad.
What they don't mean: unprincipled, whim-worshipful
What they do mean: practical, non-dogmatic, focused on reality and consequences, albeit often with a short-term focus

This sometimes means what we think it means, but at least half the time it really means something heroic, like giving up a high value for an even higher one. often a material value for a non-material one, like giving a kidney to your wife or fighting a bear to save your child. Before you get upset, try saying "heroic effort" instead, and see if that makes more sense in context.

It's really best if you just substitute this term for "self-centered" any time you hear it used negatively; 9 times out of 10, this is a more appropriate word for the context.
What they don't mean: engaged in pursuing long-term, rational self-interest, refusing to sacrifice a greater value for a lesser
What they do mean: self-absorbed, rude, self-centered, tends to use other people instead of valuing or trading with them

Please realize that no one has any idea what we mean when we use this term.
What they don't mean: something you act to gain or keep
What they do mean: monetary worth, usually as determined by some standard like the CPI or Ebay

I hope this brief guide proves helpful. After all, even for an immortal robot, life's to short to waste time chasing hay-men.

All the best,

S. Misanthrope

*Leaning together, headpiece filled with straw- Alas!

1 comment:

  1. Does this mean I can finally be a normal person‽

    P.s. That comic is probably the best thing to happen to the internet since porn. :p