Monday, July 26, 2010

Words up close and distant

I posted something on the Always Learning list, and I thought before, during, and after the writing that maybe it should have been here on my blog, instead. But it's not flowers and rainbows. It's a rant, and my blog has been all cheery lately.

Then came the tie-breaker, in the form of a cartoon sent by e-mail by my husband:
Comic by Randall Monroe

Keith had written "a comic about the future history of english."

If you don't really like the history of English or words or phrases much, you might want to bail out to a VERY cool Randall Monroe page. It has to do with chess. And Something Else. Chess and something exciting. (there it is)

Here's what I posted a while ago:

Subject: [AlwaysLearning] new phrases; old phrases
Date: July 26, 2010 7:48:03 AM MDT

In defense of "C-I-O," someone wrote on someone's blog somewhere far

"I suppose I’ve never been in a family where either parent had the
time to be at the beck and call of their babies 24/7. "

I think it's lazy and chickenshit for people to turn phrases into
letters like "C-I-O," pronounced "cee eye oh" instead of "cry it
out." "Cry it out" is not harder to type than something with
hyphens. It's not longer to say, it's still three syllables. But
giving it a secret-jargon term makes it seem more distant, more a
general practice than a decision, more scientific, less about *crying.*

So that's too new, too "modern," too much attempt to turn flesh-and-
blood crying baby into something chrome and glass, or at least
organically treated crib-wood.

But that was tied in with the phrase "at...beck and call." Because of
my many years of medieval-studies hobby and my long interest in
language, I know a lot about "beck and call." I've thought about it
and written about it. What I wrote was not about babies, it was
about ladies-in-waiting and other attendants in a tableau situation, a
kind of theatrical make-believe situation where I've been a coach and

I am at my family's beck and call, because I like them. If I have
house guests, I am at their beck and call. Nurses are at the beck and
call of patients. Flight attendants are at the beck and call of
pilots first and then passengers. Retail store clerks are at the beck
and call of customers unless assigned to stay behind the cash register
(convenience store clerks are not going to leave the liquor and
gambling cards to go 20 feet to help you find the cheese crackers).

That phrase needs be added here:


For anyone who's into language, or curious about what my hobby was
before it was writing about unschooling, some "beck and call" notes:

"Ranking people shouldn't have to say much to get someone to come
closer. The concept of being at someone's "beck and call" means close
enough that a gesture (beck) or call will get them there in a jiffy
(or, more likely, in the nonce, meaning "in an instance") They can't
come quick, because "quick" meant "alive" in period, not fast
(besides, even now teachers will tell you to use "quickly."). If
someone said "quickly" it meant "lively," which can also be used in
terms of speed, as in "step lively." Fast meant stuck, constant, or
fixed. Supper was "fixed" when it was put on the table. (In the
southern U.S. people still "fix supper" even though it's not broken.)"
I wrote that. It's part of this:
and there's more particular discussion in the fifth paragraph of this

But Wait! There was more, this morning. Another e-mail, same list, also brought here because they are of a piece, as was once said of material, by which they meant cloth.

Subject: Words. Single plain-old words.
Date: July 26, 2010 8:44:15 AM MDT

After I put up the new phrases; old phrases post, the next e-mail I saw was from Anu Garg at

Illustrating the importance of using the right word, Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning-bug & the lightning."

I like that a great deal today. I suppose I would like it any day, but I've been thinking of how to bring up the continuing problem of people complaining about their words being pointed at and questioned here.

Someone I threw off the list (it's rare, but it happens) wrote several snarky, sarcastic things to me on the side, or in posts I didn't let through. One was this:
"So take the word teaching out and replace it with showing. You are right Sandra. Semantics are more important than meeting the needs of the child."

Neither lightning nor lightning-bugs (fireflies, in case that's not a universal-in-English term) are necessary to meet the needs of a child, but that doesn't make them equally safe or available or desirable.

Someone (don't volunteer who; doesn't matter) recommended maybe finding a place where more holistic writing was welcome. God save us all from "holistic writing," whatever that would be. Seriously. That enough words would eventually make sense even if the little parts didn't?

I don't want to hear "holistic music," or look at "holistic art." I want to experience the best, well-thought-out, edited, deliberate communication that others have to offer.

Holistic medicine is well and good, but that doesn't mean holistic rabbits are better than normal rabbits, or holistic combustion engines are better than something that just had a tune-up. I don't want people trying to dis- and con-tort words so that they're thinking about holistic rocks, holistic clouds, holistic computer programming.

If someone's going to write something like a post for this list, that piece of writing can be as important as any poem or novel IF IT CHANGES A LIFE. There's a mountain of writing in the world that has never changed a single person's mind or actions in any way.

Words matter. Words are chosen, they don't just hop off of people like fleas. They come from thought, and fingers on keyboards. Think carefully and clearly. If your thoughts are a jumble, don't post the jumble in public. If you don't think words are important, writing might not be a good hobby for you. Someone who doesn't think different shades of blue are very important probably shouldn't be advising painters. Someone who can't figure out how to tune a guitar probably shouldn't be coaching anyone about stringed instruments of any sort.

It's okay for someone to think people to think words are not important. They shouldn't be writing about the principles of unschooling, though, if they think principles and rules are just two different words for the same thing, or that "helping someone learn" and "teaching" are exactly the same. (Thinking it isn't as bad as writing and saying so.)



Cap'n Franko said...

Good rant and one which resonates with me. I admit that maybe I go a bit too far in the precision direction and that makes me a very slow writer. I've been trying to loosen up a bit, but not too much!

Deanne said...

I really like the words you chose here:

"Words matter. Words are chosen, they don't just hop off of people like fleas."

I'm going to try and remember that next time someone doesn't want to take responsibility for the words they chose. ;)

Cally said...

Words matter to me too, Sandra. However, sometimes I think it is good to have someone use words incorrectly: then when someone like you questions the language, it ensures that others of us question the concepts. I know that over the years there have been many instances of this for me personally; when the very questioning has led me into many hours of consideration and reconsideration of words and concepts, such as 'learning' and 'teaching'. This process has affected both my thinking and my behaviour. Thank you.