David L. Hoof

Strictly Speaking

Toxic Usage: Poisoned Expression

August 25, 2014

Tags: toxic, poison, usage, expression, meaning, defintion, words, meanings, precision in intent

TOXIC

Here’s another legitimate, specific and limiting word that has been hijacked into misuse, simply because it is so short, punchy and evokes immediate fear and dread in listeners. Since news programs thrive on creating anxiety, they are unlikely to be scolded into correction, even when they are dead wrong. Misuse makes them wrong, and many toxins will make them dead. But a toxin is a poison that is evolved by natural selection in certain predators (snakes, scorpions, wasps, bees, ants, fish, lizards and spiders, plants, bushes, fruits and mushrooms) with one of two purposes: (1) either to incapacitate its prey, or (2) to make it inedible to animals inclined to prey on, and eat, it. If the substance, like phosgene gas, has not evolved by natural selection, it is not a toxin, and therefore cannot, by definition, be toxic. It can be poisonous, deadly, lethal and any number of other fairly applicable adjectives

But toxic?

Not on your life. In terms of communicating vital information, the narrowest and most exact application of a word is the most useful in evoking a correct meaning, and in seeking the appropriate remedy to a problem.

In writing contracts, lawyers use exact, commonly understood words to create a set of agreements between parties, one that the courts can easily interpret and on which they can consistently rule. In law, at least, a word cannot be claimed to mean one thing to one party and another to another party. If you’re puzzled as to what use should be applied where toxin does not, it’s poison.

Linguistic Lithmus Tests

June 1, 2014

Tags: meaning, expressions, tribal noise, selfishnesss

So like not me

Here's an expression as common as dirty, and about as helpful to meaning. It is said with the hope that those hearing it will automatically know what it is that pleases or displeases the speaker. Knowing exactly what the problem is requires Spock's Vulvcan mind meld.

It would be vastly more communicative if the speaker simply said, "I've never liked chartreuse or sweet drinks, so why would I buy a type of Gatorade that is both?" The problem a speaker has can be more clearly known by the use of a number of words like crass, tasteless, insensitive, rude, inappropriate or grotesque. Something that gives listeners a fair chance at grasping the objection immediately and specifically, or at least getting close.

The most troubling aspect of the proliferation of expressions like "So like not me," is that it is definitively self-referential. It expects everyone else to accept that the speaker is ultimately more deserving of understanding and sympathy than anyone else. There is a DSM code for self-referential people. Their chief characteristic is that they cannot see the world from other than their own preferences.

Better by far might be, for example, "John and I just don't have the same taste in art." This allows John his preferences and the speaker hers, projecting a mature recognition that people can differ, and that the speaker's need to have all conduct and expression relate to their standards is ego-maniacal intolerance.

Research

May 13, 2014

Tags: research, search, literature search, meaning inflation, pretending authority, meaning, significancen

RESEARCH

In scientific parlance, research came into usage to denote a process of structured inquiry involving experiments designed to test a hypothesis as part of a system designed to admit certain possibilities for further (not farther) consideration as theories, and in which theories remain until better theories appear, often as a result of new observations not embraced by existing theories.

In academics a distinction exists between a literature search, which means looking up what already exists in the scientific literature, and research. A literature search cites what is presumed to be currently known; research deals with what is not yet known, but which the researcher hopes that experiments will reveal. In short, research produces previously unknown data, facts or insights into the natural world.

Applying this narrow definition, the broader use of the word, as in research on the internet, attempts to dignify a process as more involved or structured or informative than the origin sense of the word intended. This is not a matter of evolution of language, but of devaluation of a rigorous process by extending the use to a highly informal one.

As regards research on the internet, unless restricted to peer-reviewed journals, the the process suffers from inclusion of material that is more often wrong than it is correct, and inclines toward separating the putative “researcher” from his or her hard-earned dollar.

At issue is the specificity of a word that is being stretched so that everyone with a computer can pretend to be a Ph.D. Even scholarly studies in comparative literature and history can’t be called research if the sources they turn up, however rare or forgotten or concealed, are already in existence at the time their search begins. Even so there are the matters of validation and reproducibility at issue with all matters where personal records, not instrumental readings, are cited.

The phenomenon in usage may be general. If another word were invented that were more demanding and specific and factual than the word research denotes or connotes, there would certainly be a word-grab to glom onto and deploy it in everyone’s arsenal of arguments, aiming, as the common australism puts it, to disclose, “the true facts.”

Most

March 3, 2014

Tags: Most, meaning, measurement, speech, content, authority, cedibility, specificity, tribal nosie


MOST

Most is another one of those words that has spread out, amoeba-like, to consume another word or expression that more often applies better. Most is fine if you’re speaking of an unmeasurable quantity, such as attractiveness. Each year People magazine features a cover of the most attractive man alive, but it leaves some wondering, “attractive to whom?”

It is a good question since with each year the most attractive man alive changes.

So when no unit of measure is available for quantity, the word most is serviceable. When an argument can be fortified by reproducible measurements of standard units, the expression greatest number of, or volume greater than all other buildings combined, works better. It shows that you’re thinking about what you say, and not just falling into step with what’s being said.

Mastication During Dinner

February 27, 2014

Tags: mastication, misuse, masturbation, words, meaning, speech, appearance, sports announcers


MASTICATION

Not what you might think. Don’t chew on this one too long, because all is it means is to chew, even if, as with cows, it doesn’t lead to quick swallowing. Mutual mastication would require the presence of an extensive appetizer during osculation, as the latter word does not mean shopping for the right dress for the Oscars.

In order to create an impression of erudition, sports announcers try to stretch their expression using words they think fulfill their intentions. Often they don't. During the Sochi Olympics we were treated to one open mic that gave us, "Wow. The French relay went from austerity to fame!" I think he meant "obscurity." Austerity is a discipline he experienced in vocabulary. Later the same guy said, of the men's bobsled. "Here he makes a mistake, then tries to compound it." I have to wonder if he shouldn't have just stuck with "correct." And in the waning days of the Games, one commentator on (yes) NPR asked if the Russians intended to "dissemble" the venues after the Olympics. Here I'm guessing, "disassemble." At the UN they have simultaneous translation, one language to another. I wonder if there shouldn't be this service for sports events.

As You Like It, or Not

February 18, 2014

Tags: thoughtful speech, speech, thought, meaning, trial noise, similarity, difference, expression, content and form

LIKE

Like has become the interjection of choice in today’s usage, the crutch sound without which every other sentence seems unable to limp into vocalization and perhaps proof irrefutable the linguists are right, that whatever comes out of mouths and passes lips ultimately depends on the inference and nuance machinery of the listeners.

But the echolalic use of “like” seems in some weird linguistic way to parallel the phenomenon of junk DNA, sitting within a genome as witness to hitchhiker or invading organism that came and saw, but did not conquer. Instead they just hung around to be useless.

Like is one of the junk DNA fragments of language, obligatory to prove that you have been hearing everyone else say like, and glomming on to be trendy, to belong, to disappear in sameness because real expression is too daring, too risky, too individualistic

The frequent use of like suggests that you cannot be liked unless you are using it, and will draw attention to yourself as a snotty egghead commie East coast liberal snob if you manage to connect a working train of thought to its vocal expression without once backpedaling into this word.

Saying like makes you recognizable as a person who doesn’t need to know the difference between like and as, since both produced similes and similes are cool, even if you don’t know that they’re similes any more than you know what synedoche means.

You know, like it’s like I don’t want to be so unlike other people who use like because nobody will hook up with me on Facebook and my life will be over. Everybody on FaceBook will dislike me because I’ve boycotted like and feel, like, you know, isolated and needing a good gun show to break out of it, dude.

It’s likeness we’re seeking, not difference.

If you’re different, I mean, like my God! Or don’t like my God. But at least think of it!

Agreement in Number

February 3, 2014

Tags: grammar, expression, meaning, tribal noise, terror of exclusion, agreement in number, saying what you mean

IS ( + plural noun)

Structured language has evolved with mathematical underpinnings. Its parts of speech correlated to mathematical signs and equations. Used correctly, any communicative sentence is assembled in a self-checking way, like DNA encoding for synthesizing unique proteins, and for only those proteins required.

Current usage has become so casual that its mathematical checking program has collapsed. One of the most common and illustrative examples of this is the connection of the present tense singular of the verb to be (‘is”) with a plural noun. In contraction this might me “There’s some trees down the road.”

Problem: the singular “is” and plural “trees” are not in agreement in number. Correct would be “There are some trees down the road,” or “Trees are down the road a bit.” Technically the failure is in agreement in number between the subject and verb.

Correct language always provides certainty that an intended meaning is spoken or written by allowing the listener or reader to hear or see that singular subjects agree with singular forms of verbs, and plural subjects agree with plural forms of verbs.

If singular is preferred, it is handy to know that the trees may be clumped into groves, copses, lines, woods and forests. Singular predication is possible here, because these collective units are unitary. So "There's a grove of trees beyond the ridge," works.

In its requirements for agreement, English is both undemanding and informative but not tyrannical. Romance languages require agreement in number and gender between subject and predicate.

Rarely but occasionally English nouns have genders, but usually they are traditional and vanishing. For example, a ship was historically referred to as she. So, “She went down with all men aboard,” was not read, as in modern times is might be, “And a promiscuous woman she no doubt was.”

I Mean... You Know?

January 26, 2014

Tags: meaning, speech, eloquence, fear, sameness, inarticulate speech, belonging, social acceptance

I MEAN... YOU KNOW

I have strayed from single words to common expressions, or combinations of words that appear in speech with such frequency that they have become virtually obligatory to entering the conversation, a prerequisite to acceptance. These expressions are the equivalent of passwords provided to guards at a military encampment in order to gain safe access to the shelter of the camp, its food, and its commanders.

Time to think.

Why start with “I mean” unless one’s normal pattern of conversing is to say things that are unmeant, and thereby insincere. And yet to begin with “I mean” communicates the possibility that any utterance made without the introductory words, “I mean” must be taken as insincere, and that unless prefixed by “I mean” the individual is speaking insincerely. And yet again, since the purpose of language is to communicate intended meanings, the use of “I mean” merely creates a larger suspicion that the speaker sometimes, if opening without this parenthetic bookend, is prevaricating, or being insincere.

Yet “I mean” is at best uneconomical. Junk phrase. Tribal noise.

As a more economic alternative, why not just say what you mean without prefix?
After what is claimed to be meant is uttered, there comes the closing bookend, “you know?" Not offered as a genuine interrogative, which would require a pause expecting a response, “you know” is often thrown down more like a gauntlet, as if to challenge the audience to disagree, or as a means of asserting that no other conclusion is possible from the assertions bookended between “I mean” and “you know.”

“You know,” could be better acquitted as respectful conversation if it were used the way that the Japanese use the same phrase in their speech. In Japanese it is slipped in at the end of a train of thought as, “You know?” Then there is, after and during eye contact, waiting for the listener to nod or shake their head. Disagreement is possible. The course of conversation can be diverted, or a point returned to with Richard Feynman’s famous, “How well do you know that fact?” Or, “Isn’t it equally true that...”

Here’s the distinction. The purpose of tribal noise is concealment, to melt in and be accepted. The purpose of language is communication and exchange of ideas. Progress depends upon the understanding of words with well grounded meaning, or interpretations that leap cultural hurdles to clarify parochial similes. An example of this latter intent would be the United Nations interpreter who made the English phrase “Like carrying coal to Newcastle,” into the Arab equivalent, “Like carrying sand to the Sahara.” She did not translate, word-for-word, but her choice better communicated the intentions of the English delegates to Arab ears. She did not add either “I mean,” or “you know.” The pace of simultaneous translation does not afford the luxury of meaningless excess.

Hopefully, A Guide to Useage

January 22, 2014

Tags: words, meaning, useage, hope, hopefully, trial noise, interjections

HOPEFULLY

As currently used to open a sentence, hopefully fails utterly in communication not only because it assumes that the listener has the same hopes as the speaker, but because, in a complex world where opposition may occur, an adverb should be directly associated with a verb, coming either before or after it

So one may say “She trained hopefully,” in that hopefully describes her training, not, as often now, after the pronoun I (Hopefully, I). And yes, training can be other than hopeful, in that hope may not characterize the process of training. It may better or more accurately be motivated by revenge, ambition, envy, a quest for recognition or equality, a feeling of responsibility to teammates, the nation, or even an appetite for pain.

Hopefully has become an introductory conversational noise intended to disarm criticism and to enlist support and understanding, rather than to provide a convincing launching pad for effective arguments.

Strange as it may seem, hopefully does not necessarily imply benevolence or a hopeful outcome for all. Hitler hopefully attacked Russia, betting that he could overrun Moscow before winter. Certainly he hoped this, and certainly he attacked with this hope, but neither his hopes nor the associated actions left any hope whatever for the poor Russians, who had misguidedly signed a nonaggression pact with Germany not a year earlier.

Good, Bad, Ugly and Confused

January 18, 2014

Tags: good, bad, healthy, ugly, confused, wellness, character, usage, meaning, le mot juste, evil

GOOD

Contrary to what common American usage would suggest, good is not the same as well. But this distinction may make little difference when the trend in usage is to destroy more exact meanings by vocal subsumption. Good is the opposite of bad, a word that retains medical meaning, as well as “bad” referring in contemporary urban connotation to the admirably desirable if not always effective practice of impulsive confrontation. As mentioned earlier, bad can be good, suggesting that good can be bad.

But here’s the problem. The identity of opposites, as in the collision of particle with antiparticle, destroys the possibility of being exclusively and unconfusingly either one thing or its opposite.

With greatest clarity, good as opposed to evil (a word that the British apply with charm to unlikable odors) is a moral condition. Favorable moral conditions may be sought by high churchman seeking beatification, but it would be a deadly sin – vanity – to imagine that one could refer to a question, “How are you?” by answering, “Good.”

On the other hand, one can claim wellness. Well is the word sought by those asking the question, “How are you?” Well means healthy (not healthful). Except for lethal hidden cancers creeping at snails paces inside us, self assessment can extend beyond a self-deception about robust health by referral using thermometers to body temperatures, heart rates, blood pressure (via home cuff), athletic endurance and such subtleties as skin color, or conversely pallor. In past ages it was said, “He doesn’t look well,” and be perfectly understood. These days are heard the words, “He doesn’t look good,” and it could be anything from pallor to the performance of a running back on Monday night football, but rarely for Karl Rove. He doesn’t appear to be morally sound; he lies to his closest allies in order to protect his own position in the primate hierarchy.

It is well (for everyone’s blood pressure) that we exit this discussion at this point, while still trudging alongside Diogenes, reigniting his legendary lamp with Duracells claimed to be better than EverReady’s, every step of the journey still seeking an honest man, one who would never hold forth on the matter of his own goodness. In the end, only God can make that call. Which makes it so sad that humans often seek it by self-declaration, refusing a reconsideration by higher authorities who use stop-action video replay to overturn the call made by the players in a game of life where it not only counts to be good, but is even better to be better, and pays best to be best.

In such a game it is impossible to say that there is no conflict of interest – and commensurate doubt – whenever we reply to “How are you?” with “I am good.” Why is it that not even Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleeve have dissented by denying it, by responding, “I am bad,” and “I am ugly.” And you wonder why Diogenes still makes the effort. So do I. It’s a good question.

Expanding Awareness of Others

December 29, 2013

Tags: intent, meaning, malaprops, right and left, right and wrong, awareness, minoriies, oppression by common usagetikn

DEXTEROUS

In current usage, the word dexterous intends to communicate a sense of deftness of hand, coordination of fine motors skills, a knack for moving objects around in space without smashing them (or yourself) up. Strictly applied, this word’s origin excludes more than twelve percent of the population, in particular all of those who happen to be left handed. Since dexterous derives from the Latin dexter, for right handed, no left handed person can be dexterous.

Nor can they be ambidextrous, which would mean, literally, having a right hand at the end of both arms and being able to juggle as well as an anatomically normal person. Better for the intended meaning is ambichiral, which means that each hand is as agile as the other at writing, throwing, juggling and all those things like dancing the hand jive, an ambichiral dance.

As for left handers, if deft with moving objects they are sinistral, from the Latin word for left, which also spins off into sinister, or evil. People who are sinistral are not necessarily sinister, but the expression “right hand man” come from the position of trust of a person seated at a table directly to the right of the king, or pope, or emperor, because from that position, an easy and powerful twist could put a knife quite literally right through the heart of the monarch. If seated directly to the left of the ruler, a right handed person would need first to show his weapon, then lean away from the target and lash back, requiring three motions and employing less force in the intended lethal strike.

Of course for a left handed person seated to the left, it would be as easy to strike powerfully at a leader as for a right-handed person seated to the right. Perhaps if the second most trusted man in the kingdom is left handed, he needs to sit two seats to the left, with one seat left vacant, hovered over by somePretorian guard ready to interdict.

The seating arrangement to the left is also the origin of the expression back-handed complement, since a right hander seated to the left has difficulty assuming normal and relaxed posture when leaning in toward, or speaking to, the king, who is always aware of the back-handedness of the second banana’s posture.

The numerical superiority of right handers has led to a world so completely designed for leading with the right hand that everything from drinking fountains to golf clubs were originally for right handers only. The proliferation of these disadvantages results in accident rates that leave left handers two years younger than their right handed counterparts at time of death. Its unfair to add the disadvantage of careless usage to that pattern. If we're not using "nigger" for PC reasons, we should watch our word regarding other prejudices.


Democracy

December 27, 2013

Tags: democracy, enlightenment, government, meaning, rhetoric

DEMOCRACY

The discussion of this word in contemporary America is scarcely possible without a clot of ubermachismo listeners responding with a tear in their eye, a lump in their pants, and the conviction that they will kill you before admitting any detonation, connotation, or annotation that departs from their beliefs, by God, Country, and Mom’s apple pie.

The truth of democracy is a simple one, government by elected officials with specific powers who win their positions in a fairly conducted election in which all eligible voters are permitted unobstructed access to vote, in which no eligible voter is forced to vote, where every person eligible to cast a vote according to rules of age, residency and freedom from felonious conviction has a right to one and via only one ballot, in which the ballots are all cast according to strict pre-election rules on the eligibility of candidates and in which the total is reached by tally of ballots alone, without discrimination as regards the demographic status of the voter, through a process where both the electioneering and voting are conducted in a system of competition where rules of electoral conduct are observed and not subverted by any party.

In this regard, if everything goes right, the majority rules, in as far as electing a person whom they believe, often by identifying with a personality rather than that person’s ability to rule. In America, the word democracy connotes a democracy with an American policy lever attached. This is why in August, 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency launched Operation Ajax, cleansing Iran of the democratically elected Premier Mohammed Mossedegh, and installing, sans election, the Shah Reza Pahlavi. He ruled with a Hitlerian barbarity until ousted by a theologically inspired revolution in 1979.

Washington was expecting the common Iranian to be more grateful for protecting them from the godless commies to the North. Such protection was unnecessary. Ten years later the commies got both god and democracy, plus ersatz capitalism to boot. This is as good as it gets. Now, as Bob Dylan prophesied, the Russians, too, have God on their side. So finally they have made the right choice by God, Country, Apple pie and the traditional wild punch-up at the local tavern to follow the balloting.
It would be more honest to blame ourselves for democracy than to thank God.

Nowhere in the Ten Commandments does it say Thou Shalt Not Fail to Vote. In a system where, as Lord Acton predicted, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in which few watch either the watchers or the balloting process, corruption seems inevitable. In the richest countries, the outcome of democratic balloting is strongly influenced by campaign financing, which is intended to be conducted under the governance of rules and reporting that are often subverted or ignored. The Supreme Court can be credited for abetting these practices. And for dilating the separation between the rich and the poor.

In systems open to free expression and valuing the truth, outrageous lies as spoken and repeated with the greatest of apparent conviction, because what is valued is not honesty or openness, but winning and power. In human minds that are more suspicious than analytical, suspicions will often sway those who are disinclined from rational balance and who are swayed by prejudices, fears and – yes – even hates. The devil believed to be known is preferred to an opponent whose evil may remain artfully concealed.

In countries were balloting is democratic by format but where balloting is instantly examined, where discovery of opposition is punished by discrimination, ostracization, or death, and in which voter conduct is either artificially elevated by boosterism or repressed by threat of rumor, the outcome will be influenced by the forces at work, just as the outcome is influenced by money and perception in countries where money and perception can be brokered toward an outcome favored by an affluent faction determined to alter public perception. Realities to the contrary may be unimportant in determining the outcome. Ideas that are perceived as being real are real in their consequences.

Democracy does not guarantee the emergence of any traditional system of justice, law, culture, or language. Democracy, if rigorously pursued as a concept, simply ensures that the preferences of the majority of voters will be incorporated in the governmental system that follows. If Israel is, as advertised by its spokespeople, the only true democracy in the Middle East, population demographics guarantee three things. First, since the birthrate of Arabic Israelis exceeds that of Jewish Israelis, an elected government will some day exist that is unsympathetic to a powerful prejudice within Israel, that it is a theocracy existing for the preservation and protection of the Jews.

If such a view continued after the Arabic Israelis achieved democratic majority, this view would be a minority one, and would stand in the way of progress on matters of settlement and human rights in the West Bank.

Second, if an Arabic Israeli majority triumphs at the polls, then the nature of the law, the country’s treatment of Arabs and its foreign policy with respect to surrounding Islamic nations is bound to be affected. If democracy operates, it operates in a system where its turning wheels can eliminate democracy, if desired. If democracy is arguably the preferred system over all systems, it will re-emerge on its own merits.

This actually happened in Germany after World War I, where under the terms of the armistice Germany would be forced to incorporate a democratic form of government in which its leaders and officials were elected, a system in which an elected legislature would be needed to decide matters, a system in which German was forbidden from having an army.

The German people didn’t like the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which encumbered them with heavy reparations that became harder to bear as the Great Depression followed the American stock market crash of October 24, 1929. This made them joyous to embrace the familiar pattern of one strongman leading them, even though the one man was only an illiterate fulminating former corporal who dreamed of exterminating every Jew on Earth and defied every other nation on Earth with the 1930's equivalent of “bring it on.”

They did, all of those countries, and there were not enough Reichsmarks, propagandists or soldiers or tanks to defeat them all. The military ambitions to extend German’s world dominance by unjustified aggression failed. Hitler’s agents repressed then destroyed dissent, declaring all other views than the Führer’s to be unpatriotic, expelling many physicists who led the United States to develop the word’s first nuclear weapon, and the second, and third.

After the Second World War Germany was broken up into free and Soviet zones. The free zone was democratic and, despite being ruled by former Nazis, became one of the most peaceful and fair-minded nations on Earth, a complete vole-face.
With respect to Nazi Germany, it did better with respect to the appearance of democracy during World War II than did the United States as regards some of their citizens whom they squirrel away, without due process, in harsh, minimalist American concentration camps in western states.

Antidemocratic would be the least severe description that for what happened; the rights guaranteed to an entire subculture were violated without even lip service to due process. But as regards the Japs, who were Japs long before the Vietnamese were called gooks, the worst was yet to come.

The de facto situation in democratic American, land of the free and home of the brave, is that race hatred against the Japanese was used to punish these innocents for a dastardy attack on Pearl Harbor that was carefully orchestrated (by freezing Japanese assets in America and embargoing Japan from United States aviation fuel and iron ore), an attack known to be in planning by Code Purple (the code already broken, as the British had broken the German Enigma Code prior to the raid on Coventry)

When the Japanese fleet sailed east to strike Pearl Harbor, the purpose of the attack was to leave the Japanese Empire unthreatened when it occupied Dutch East Asia for its oil supply. Radar images of the incoming Japanese zeros was ordered ignored. FDR needed to create the image of treacherous oriental fiends and innocent occidental victims to catalyze a sea change in the isolationist mood of 1941 America. Had Japan been a democratic nation, it would not have conferred any exemption from reprisal.

The Japs, as American many veterans of the Second World War still call them, weren’t like us. Germans were more like us. Germans stood between Europe and Josef Stalin’s communist menace. Americans of German descent, even first generation German Americans, were not locked up in concentration camps. They were democratically enlisted to serve their country, and did so well. As did black Americans, as did the Windtalking Amerindian Marines, as did Italians and Hispanics, none of them, either according to Father Coglan or the KKK exactly the heart and soul of white America.

These were Japs. So upset was an American veteran of World War II, former bomber pilot and US President, at meeting with the Japanese premier more than forty years after the end of hostilities that he vomited all over Japan’s premier. At a public occasion. But then some race that makes you that sick would be easy enough to relegate to subhumanity, to slate for extermination, even for the few, proud U.S. Marines, as the did on Peile Liu, to divest the corpses of Japanese soldiers of their dental gold just as German SS were harvesting gold fillings from exterminated Jews.

Certainly the Japanese did themselves no service with the Batan Death March, but the Germans also machine-gunned captured US soldiers after the Normandy invasion. And yet, there was no possibility that we would use a nuclear weapon on Germany. Not only was it unthinkable to unleash such a horror on another occidental people, but even had the A-bomb been ready (it wasn’t tested in the Trinity test until July, 1945 and Hitler had committed suicide at the end of April, 1945) it would have created an unacceptable fallout, literally and figuratively, where American forces were still rousting the German scientists who had made the V-I, the V-II and, too late for any effect, the first jet-powered fighter.

These POW scientists were people whom we could make Americans, however many Jews they had worked to death. They simply weren’t subhuman. They didn’t deserve to be incinerated twice. An invasion of Germany to liberate it was worth every soldier slaughtered on Omaha Beach at Normandy. Japan wasn’t worth a single more American fatality. Every syllable previously inked is inextricably linked to the American notion of democracy.

A prime weapon to advance democracy over communism during the Cold War against the Soviets was the bomb. Whatever it was the Ruskies could hurl our way could be survived by “duck and cover.” But woe unto Slavs whom the Führer had pegged subhumans. A la Herman Kahn, if merit doesn’t work to establish democracy, then we should use the bomb. This is the way, according to Curtis LeMay, who itched to use a massive nuclear bombing to defeat democracy’s only remaining ideological enemy.

Why waste all the uncertainties of the ballot box and freedom of choice when you can simply blow your enemy away with an apocalyptic weapon? Without questions or ballots or any pretenses of free speech, this ends all honest discussion concerning the putative merits of various systems, tears away the green curtain and cuts to the chase of might making right.


Say What You Mean

December 19, 2013

Tags: intent, meaning, color, clarity, confusion, usage

CLEAR

When applied to materials, clarity is defined as the property that allows the image of an object seen through it to pass sufficiently free of distortion that the transmitted image remains recognizable in shape and apparent size, and undistorted in relative proportions. In all particulars but one, clarity is equivalent to transparency. What clarity does not necessarily mean is what most people now intend when they use the word “clear.” And that commonly omitted property is colorlessness.

And object or medium can meet all the criteria required to be clear and still be colored. In seeing the world through rose colored glasses, it is very much the world that others see through conventional colorless eyeglasses except in being shaded to the preference of the wearer. All sunglasses are by necessity clear. Were they not our eyes could not receive the objects that we need to see in order to walk, drive, apply sun block, stare at babes, check out whether the babes think our shades are cool, check out whether any babe is looking back at all.

Politicians are fond of adding emphasis by making the claim “crystal clear,” perhaps referring to Waterford crystal stem ware, which is, unfortunately, richly faceted, a property that results in diffraction rather than undistorted transmission. And Venetianglassl, which clear in the sense of transmitting objects undistorted, is often beautifully colored, and like any article colored for the purposes of added effect, does not allow the transmission of an image that is identical to the objected viewed in the absence of the interposing medium.

As it is now misused in describing products like caulks and plastics, one needs to specify both clear and colorless in order to express what most users now call clear. If this argument has reached you undistorted and intact, its meaning will be clear, even if necessarily colored by a scientist’s need for exact expression.

Finally, the word “clear,” like many other words in the English language, has several meanings, each of which is usually exposed by the context in which it is used. As it relates to sound, clarity means that the acoustical content (pitch, volume, meter, time, fundamental overtones and other aspects) arrives at the listener’s ear as if the listener were sitting at the source of the sound. This means that the medium in which it travels is uniform and transmitting (as even water does better than air), that it is not degraded by other louder sounds, or by badly placed reflectors or absorbing surfaces.

There is in a room at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland where a point source of sound is located at the exact center of the room. The walls of the room are packed in acoustically absorbing materials so efficient that the source’s sounds never reflect or echo. They merely and purely transmit outward in concentric compressions and rarefactions of air. What is heard by a human listener in this room is sound so starkly pure that it is truly austere. And so if the richness of sounds depend to some extent on imperfections, so much the more reassuring. None of us is perfect.

Sports Gives Us Bowl Games for Christmas?

December 14, 2013

Tags: sports commentators, nativity, Christmas, bowl games, meaning

BIRTH(sic)

In discussing the aspiration of one athlete to make the United States Olympic roster for the 2008 Beijing Games, a writer for The Washington Post sports section reported that this man was seeking a “birth(sic)” on the team. The appearance of the parenthetical (sic) indicates the a word quoted is in error but appears exactly as it did in the cited reference. Sic means “same in copy.” Or politely, indicates in subtext that the idiot writer actually wrote it this way; the rhetorical subtext being “Do you believe this stupidity?”

One may attempt to be fair and, yes, accurate, admitting the ranks of sports broadcast and journalism (sic) create such fertile fields for meaningless, contradictory, or erroneous neologisms that humor, not commentary, must be intended. Just as Shakespeare made his buffoonish characters sound stupid whenever they open their mouths, sports journalists cozy up to athletic stars donning cocked baseball hats and attitudes that, “Tough guys don’t talk smart.”
A yearning to connect to a top athlete limits a sportscaster’s vocabulary. Today Howard Cossell would be strapped to a spit and roasted at a pre-game bonfire. If sociology describes collective behavior in sports reporters, it goes beyond the wisdom of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) to DIB (Dumb is Beautiful).

Still, as regards the demolition of meaning, it is not those hysterically funny blunders that most offend. It is when writers, such as this poor soul from The Washington Post, attempt to cross the divide between vocal expression into the structured alignment of written words into sentences where, as Strunk and White advised, every word should count.

Evidently the Post writer, having read far less than he ever listened, was hooked on phonics and innocent of sematics. Yet it is semantics, based in definitions, that create meaning by placing the correct word in the correct textual position.
The word “birth” communicates nativity, the process or act of coming into being. Certainly this would include neologisms, but the inevitable phenomenon of neologisms, which can refresh language by making it fresher and more vibrant, do not extend to the use of what is clearly the wrong word in the wrong place. Stupidity in use is not excused by the writer saying, “That’s what I thought it meant,” when most of his educated readers know differently. Unless this journalist was referring to a born-again athlete, seeking a birth on the team was not what should have been inked.

As so many in sport, the correct expression predates the user significantly, but he could easily have discovered the difference by looking up the word he didn’t know.
There is in language today a practice parallel to the way that commercial computer programs evolve. Present errors are excused on the promise that future revisions will correct those errors. Even when perfection is possible, imperfection is acceptable. Neither the occurrence or rate of error matters any longer.
What the blundering Post writer was seeking, and evidently did not even miss, was that the sound of the word “birth” is shared with the word “berth,” which is a sleeping space belowdecks on a ship, assignment to which is synonymous with being part of a crew ( or by extension, team) essential to the ship’s daily operations and safe passage. Assignment to a berth does not mean it is yours exclusively. The same berth may be used during one sailor’s work shift by another sailor, but there remains no doubt that everyone who is berthed belongs to the crew (team).

Spell check, that seemingly infallible enemy of apparent illiteracy, will fail to inform you that “berth” rather than “birth” is required. Where a noun is required by grammar programs, a noun will in fact appear. It should be the correct noun, not just a homonym of the correct noun. “Birth,” sounds identical to “berth,” but isn’t right, anymore than “dotter,” would suffice in a sentence where “daughter” were needed.

More useful to communication would be a discipline-specific collections of phrases that, for sports writers, would include “earn a berth” and “ be granted a berth.” So when a writer keys in, “earn a birth” the program would assist his escape from stupidity by asking, per the Google search engine, “Do you mean, ‘earn a berth’?” Unemployment might certainly lessen and career opportunities expand if an increasingly subliterate, non-reading population could glom onto yet another computer program that is, sadly, better informed than are they.

By the passing day it becomes more possible to believe this could happen. In the end, while probably banned by the Screen Actors Guild from face-to-face interviews, computer programs could do written sports coverage considerably better than current journalists.

We seem to be entering an age with a prevailing belief that it is easier to be forgiven an error than it is necessary to get it right the first time. Too often journalists of all stripe are unjustifiably fond of their own knowledge, ignoring Winston Churchill observation, “It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.” More so when using the written word, because ephemeral as it is, print last longer than broadcast and circulates farther (not further, see further).

This misuse of “birth” for “berth,” could have been avoided by simply asking the Richard Feynman question, “How well do I know that fact (or that spelling)?” Evidently the editorial staff of the Post does less text checking than the smallest local rag in the least literate township in Texas. At the risk of being as redundant as most sports journalists (Tough Guys Don’t Talk Good), please realize that I am not asking this kind of meticulous care from The Laredo Lariat, but from one of the traditional standards of journalism, The Washington Post.

Bottom line: When no one remains who knows the difference between “birth” and “berth,” it will signal the death of meaning.

Tribal Noise: Misuse, Overuse, Predictability and Meaninglessness

November 25, 2013

Tags: language, words, word choice, communication, meaning

ACCURACY

Scientists define accuracy as the nearness to that elusive Eldorado of the mind, the truth. If one attempts to determine the rest mass of an electron, as a start it might do to start with Millikan’s famous, clever, crude and laboriously brilliant oil drop experiment. But that is just a start, and science pursues accuracy relentlessly. So you will need to and continue to measure this fundamental unit of our universe in different, independent experimental ways, using different experimental results that should – if the theories connecting them are correct – converge on one value good enough to plug in to experiments that are, in turn, used to measure other fundamental properties of units containing electrons, such as atoms, molecules, and ions.

Of course the results of careful experiments are expected to be reproducible, but reproducibility is communicated by an entirely different word, precision, which for the purposes of making this discussion long enough for a published book, is discussed again under – why not? – precision. It is done precisely because of Marine Corps dogma that if you repeat enough times to a recruit, however stupid, something that you want him to believe, he (or these days, she) will eventually accept and apply it.

In science, the purpose of reference books is to accumulate in tabular form from the professional literature such values as are, at that fleeting moment, the received wisdom. Sometimes, more often than one might hope, errors occur.

And why not? The books are compiled by humans based on other humans whose motives and methods are occasionally not as pure as their putative ideals.

Once during a famous multiparametric experiment into a matter so arcane and yet nonetheless vital that Richard Feynman felt driven to pursue it with his legendary indefatigable graduate students.

Feynman’s experiment was, in the parlance of physicists (who speak to each other and argue with God), infallibly structured. The expected answer could, as often in physics, be predicted in advance. Yet the measurement he got, time after time, continued to give an uncalculated answer.

Bringing us back, along the conversational Mobius strip, to accuracy, and the fact that when a value is given, it is never perfectly rendered. To the extent that either experimental device or fundamental prohibitions dictate, accuracy is always plus or minus something.

On a grocer’s scale you can measure the weight of an apple to plus or minus, say, one eighth or .125 of a pound. And so the weight that is given, even if digitally presented, can be greater than the value indicated by this much, or less by this much. Since its weight is uncertain by the span between the low and the high, the value shown is uncertain by twice this 0.125 pound, or 0.25 pound. This isn’t unfairness in commerce. It’s just the limit in the Hooke’s Law constant, k, in the spring under the pan.

Every scientist has to live with this, and to report it. But Feynman’s famous funny experiment was not just off by the cumulative errors of all the devices used in the experiment. It was off, and always off, by an amount that corresponded to the difference of a conventionally accepted physical constant that was used as given in the literature, as an assumption. And so this forced the brilliant Dr. Feynman, who was surely not joking, to ask, “As regards the value of this constant, how well do we know this ‘fact?’”

The answer to that question was not just a successful outcome for Feynman’s clever experiment, but a revision of the value of the formerly accepted constant to its correct, and, yes, accurate value. You will not find the person establishing the former value to introduce himself at parties as, “The guy who provided the wrong number that cost Dick Feynman a hundred hours of anguish.”

Nobody likes to be the guy who used to be right. Worse, of course, was the fact that Feynman, while Einsteinian in asking questions that were very simple and profound, was also handsome, charming, funny and entertaining. Mere people, the ones who write and rewrite history, will forgive a scientist like John Cavendish being a fulminating misogynist because he was, surpassing that fault, a brilliant physicist. Ad they might have forgiven Richard Feynman at least half of his ineffably delightful traits but for one: women loved him.

In matters of love, it cannot be said that a woman loves a man plus or minus anything, because so far no one has established a basic unit for love, or devised a scale upon which it can be measured. Mostly it’s more absolute that way, either everything or nothing. True love is chronically infatuating.

But in other human competitions, especially sports, there is usually a metric that establishes with some accuracy who wins and who doesn’t.

In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Michael Phelps is said to have won his record setting eighth gold medal in the finals of the one hundred meter butterfly by 0.01 second. His victory was measured on a timing system that was claimed to be accurate to plus or minute 0.005 seconds. No one ever verified this. In China, those who question authority end up submerging from view, with their organs popping up in paying recipients from Stockholm to Tierra del Fuego.

But assuming the Chinese timers were accurate to the precision mentioned, this means that Michael Phelps’ time could have been 0.005 seconds slower, and his rival, silver medalist Lásló Cseh of Hungary could have been 0.005 seconds faster, meaning a dead heat.

This happens, even officially. In the immediately preceding Games in Athens in 2004 the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle was shared by Gary Hall, Jr. and Anthony Edwards. A silver medal was unawarded, the next place being third, for bronze. Like it or not, them’s the rules.

The Gold Standard of Words, Part 2

November 23, 2013

Tags: language, words, word choice, communication, meaning

THE GOLD STANDARD OF WORDS, Part 2

The emergence of excellence in communication does not require ponderously long sentences. It is catalyzed by using words that are correct in detonation, informative in connotation, and sufficiently succinct as to disallow confusion in meaning. In a world where even the distinct consequences of shouting, “Fire!” may be either a group response to a conflagration or total thermonuclear war, it is important that intent and care inform word choice.

Now let’s see the way that the current usage of a number of familiar words indicates that many current speakers have lost the command of language in service of meaning. The importance of immediate acceptance, as indicated by the epidemic of friending on Facebook has shrunk and hidebound our core vocabulary at exactly the time when the complexity of future issues requires an extension of its reach.

What follows is a necessarily incomplete illustration of how this shrinkage is diminishing the ability to communicate precisely. And to the unanchored drift, we need to recall the Bard’s advice:

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the
action; with this special observance, that you
o’erstep not the modesty of nature.”
- Hamlet, Act III, scene 2

More to come.

The Gold Standard of Words, Part 1

November 22, 2013

Tags: language, words, word choice, communication, meaning

THE GOLD STANDARD OF WORDS, Part 1

In order to polarize my argument, I’ll provide you with a linguistic choice. It is not an arbitrary choice, or a choice of preference, or one that skews the field of reason toward a favored conclusion; it is a linguistically utilitarian choice. It favors choices that improve the density in meaning that result from making the best choice among many available options.

In its most extreme form, unshaded by the many nuances that language often brings, it is this: either words are unconfusing universally understood symbols of meaning that guide communication, discussion, argument, agreement, actions and commitments, or they tend toward familiar noises, issued without attention to a emotional connotation or deep meaning, but only for the purpose of creating the illusion of agreeability, and for signaling that you belong to a group, share their beliefs, outlooks, values and hopes, and are not one of the dreaded Other.

Uttering familiar tribal noise indicates that you belong, are a person every other tribesman would like to share a beer with. By narrowing vocabulary and avoiding substance in your speech, you assure other tribesmen that no serious disagreement will arise, because by limiting the range of words used, utterances can never be divisive. By resetting your default to tribal noise, or MacLanguage, conformist usage forces words to change meaning to buttress the social purpose of unification.

The result is that the scientific convention of deliberately and consciously choosing exactly defined words, words that are dense in unambiguous meaning, words that encourage skepticism and dispute, is consciously suppressed in favor of the repetition of familiar, even contradictory words, words or gestures nurtured by social conventions – such as nodding, shrugging, and “whatever.”

If we could find a gold standard for word choice, it would require a density of meaning, words created as distinct for specific and important purposes not subordinated to intellectual pretenses, words not conscripted to create the appearance of meaning whereas in fact their use betrays a lack of understanding. E. B. White recognized a fundamental elegance in the English language: if a speaker or writer is conversant enough with its vocabulary and presses hard enough, he or she can almost always find the word with exactly the intended meaning.

This kind of definitive specificity eliminates the confusion of vagueries arising from using unspecific words, as in “Why didn’t you show up at the place and get the thing and the other thing along with whatever and bring them you know where after?”

In spoken American English, this sort of expression occurs every day. A clear improvement would be, “Why weren’t you at Sutton Place at three to pick up the salad and wine?” This question rephrases the former one with specific referents, and at a level of language that is no more demanding of immediate comprehension than its earlier version.

The recurrent point of such considerations is that unless the objective of speech is the simultaneous destruction of individuality and communication, a departure from the current trend toward ever narrower core vocabularies is essential.

Junk Words, Part 2

November 21, 2013

Tags: language, communication, speech, conversation, meaning, junk words

No social advantage is conferred by learning words that few understand. In a completely modern sense, even in crowds involving an expanding demographic, the ability to belong, or to be invited or accepted into the tribe, depends upon avoiding the primatological stigma of seeming to be the Other.

Currently, the conversational range of familiar tribal noise is extremely narrow. As in nature, when the diversity of DNA within a species narrows, the possibility of mass extinction increases. Approaching this asymptote, the din of tribal noise rises. Any words beyond a familiar and narrow range become shibboleths. In ancient societies, the use of shibboleths could lead to stoning. Now they are more likely to result in stonewalling.

Never before in human history have so many serious problems needed such thoughtful consideration. The proper use of the right words is key to understanding. And understanding is bedrock to blazing a trail that leads out of the thicket of complexity into clear plans and thoughtful commitments. Meaning is not necessarily guaranteed by sticking to simple words or short sentences, however clearly a speaker may have intended them. Consider, for example:

Ship sails today.

Three simple, broadly understood words. One sentence. But not even the punctuation reveals the speaker’s intent. Is the sentence an imperative, and order commanding the commitment of a commodity, sails, to a process, shipment? Or is the sentence declarative, providing information on a dock, that a ship, like the Titanic, will weigh anchor and voyage to a destination? Often context rushes to the rescue, but if “Ship sails today” were the only message beamed to extraterrestrial intelligence, what would the receivers make of it, even if we provided them pictures of a ship and a sail?

The problem with junk words is both that their frequency creates confusion while diminishing the intended signal. Today one may speak at great length and never communicate anything close to deep meaning. Even on as august a source as NPR radio, a guest and her host used the word “incredible” an incredible nine times in two minutes. For want of the ability to tap the correct word in order to discuss and describe, the retreat to a much repeated hyperbole acquitted the discussion of the customary burden of serious communication.

A need is rapidly developing for the intervention of a crucial lexicographic remedial program, because, in incontrovertible truth – as the super storm Sandy of 2012 proved – there is not an app for everything. And to restrict one’s attention, time and even belief that your i-phone will rescue you from a flooding basement is dangerously delirious thinking. At such moments, it matters not at all that you have five thousand Friends across every nation on Earth (upper case E means the planet, lower case e means dirt). What you need at such moments is one real first responder who understands one simple word: “Help!”

In some essential respect, as tribal noise inundates modern conversation, this book is a desperate cry to rescue the language from an onrushing flood of meaninglessness. It seeks those readers who are able to understand the cry for help, trusting that without them, entropy will put meaning to rout.

The Purpose of Human Language, Part 3

November 17, 2013

Tags: language, purpose, communication, meaning

So, how did otherwise disagreeable individuals in an early human tribal community come to recognize necessarily distinct objects by the sounds that accurately represented them?

Nobody knows, or may ever know, but there are important clues from our biologically close relatives. In a sense that perhaps neither Charles Darwin nor Alfred Russell Wallace properly anticipated, fitness as a filter for natural selection may work both on an individual and collective level. It would be strange, given that modern monkeys emit characteristic screams warning for ‘eagle’ and ‘snake,’ if our prelingual ancestors did not create counterpart sounds. When danger presented itself to the group, a solitary upright bipedal animal would not benefit uniquely from silence any more than it would benefit from remaining motionless. Even now, when people are startled by unexpected gunfire or explosions, they scream and scatter. But a scream, while communicating an underlying primal fear, does not communicate any level of detail about the stimulus for that fear.

Benjamin Latimer has suggested that the progression of the primate laryngeal apparatus toward the configuration that is required to master a broad range of vocalization. There is a gene, FOXP2, associated with the capacity for human language, but spoken language, as opposed to signing, requires an instrument of variable sounds that is adept at creating them across a broad range.

This did not happen overnight. Not even in as simplified a tale of origins as the Bible are we told on what day God created language. But it seems unlikely that one day an entire pack of these creatures burst forth in fully articulated language. Even when the author Lewis Carroll invented what was clearly structured like a language, it appeared without an attached culture or history. For Carroll’s ersatz language no Rosetta Stone existed, at least beyond the mind of its creator. Its nature and details were sufficiently unfamiliar that even Greek would have been more comprehensible.

Pursuing the same tutored instinct, author and philologist J. R. R. Tolkien created an unfamiliar yet enchanting alphabet for his Hobbit trilogy. This was not an incredible leap of pure faith. Archeologists have exhumed the written records of many long dead civilizations. History begins in the transition between painting and written characters, but not to the exclusion of cultures without writing. More than eighty-five percent of cultures exist with only a spoken expression for communication. For nomadic peoples, where the roles and routines are fixed by the seasons and rigid social niches, a written literature may seem a pointless effort.

Written language does not immediately provide food or shelter or improve health. But the spell of storytelling seems to escape the hardship of nomadic life. Rich oral traditions, repeated and embroidered, reach back beyond their eventual written counterparts. Wherever tribal connections favor individual advancement, skillful schmoozing will become a facile means to an end, provided that meaning is embodied in an acoustical structure.

How did this happen?

Again, nobody knows, although ancient legends purport all kinds of human gifts to divine largesse. Or, as even a churchgoing, hard-praying Forrest Gump doubted, maybe not. Prelingual primates evolving toward a fully human range of expression must have developed at least a rudimentary suite of sounds for particularly useful objects: sticks and stones that not only break bones, but allowed primitive torches and hearth stones. In the hunt or for common defense, the mastery and portability would have provided another deterrent against creatures with instincts to flee fire. Fire, or any other essential element of a nomadic culture, would have forged for itself an early place in emerging tribal vocabularies.

Example must be not only real, but representative.

Here’s one: In the Academy Award winning film Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner communicates with his Amerindian hosts by using the sound they use for Buffalo: “Tonka.” Then he holds his fingers up like horns on each side of his head, depicting the sound’s meaning: buffalo. Finally he points toward where he has spotted them. So in “Tonka,” is another inescapably essential noun, the sine qua non of a culture of the plains Indian that depended entirely on the buffalo.

The absence of a familiar noun for buffalo would have reduced the process of communicating to a bizarre atavistic game of charades on the prairie. Whereas it is easy to imagine a developmental process of spoken sounds that expanded from a culturally essential element, it is more difficult to imagine a nomadic culture that converged on the essential via trivial pursuits. The harder a lifestyle is, the more economical and immediate its vocabulary must be. There is an inescapable congruity of form and substance that limited the size of vocabulary until agrarian settlements accumulated food stores and diversified technologies.

The requirement for the development of an increasing number of vocalized nouns likely started, to Descartes’ posthumous delight, directly from the need to name the sundry objects explored by the ancestral hand. Long before our predecessors evolved the biological flexibility to master a range of sounds, our brains had allocated a disproportional area of the cortex to the exquisite exploration, manipulation and projection of physical objects discovered in their environment. Vocalized language is not an essential prerequisite to the recognition of possibilities, alteration of naturally occurring objects into tools, or individual intellectual development.

Even without speech, humans are curious creatures. Deaf children have no less fascination in how tools and puzzles and gadgets work than do children with a full range of audible speech. And they, too, need ways to share their discoveries with others. Unsurprisingly, they do so by exhibiting, with those same hands that dominate more neurons than the speech center, a sign for each object. Their nouns, and other words, are shapes in space presented by the most flexibly chiral of all manipulators, the human hand.

All that the hand needs in order to effectively employ objects is a fully opposable thumb. Fortunately we have one, and this allows us to seize such objects in what is called a power grip. With the assistance of an equally capable eye, the hands can begin to alter naturally occurring materials. As in all species, some individuals will be more gifted in thinking, or recognizing possibilities, than others. But without language, the enlargement of manual skills from one generation to another is limited to the ability of observant apprentices to watch and emulate master craftsmen, or – more often in hardship cultures like the !Kung – craftswomen.

Unfortunately, what observation and emulation often does not communicate is a set of underlying “whys.” Why was a particular stone chosen as more suitable to forming a hand axe or spear tip? Why was a particular tree branch used as the starting material for a club or kindling to start a fire? Only when a master craftsman’s or agronomist’s reasoning can be codified into spoken form can it be transmitted not by observation, but by hearing. This brings us to another transformational aspect of speech as a medium of communication: unlike a deaf person, whose signing falls silent when hands are occupied with fabrication, a master artisan who speaks can both demonstrate his skills as well as elaborate on reasons, techniques, even alternatives – drawing into the realm of possibility objects that are not physically present, and actions that are not being employed at the moment of creation.

It is broadly proclaimed that mastery of fire was pivotally important to humans surviving the hardships of the last Ice Age. But far older remnants of hominid fires stretch south from Europe, reaching farther into Africa. Long before needed to stave off lethal cold, controlled fire banished the darkness to expose approaching predators and allowed firebrands to be used by sentries for self-defense. Fire extended the hours for socializing, sharing objects or inventions, and sharpening or replacing spear tips. Fire banished nocturnal darkness, allowed cooking of foods and experimentation with thermal properties of objects, from stones to clay. But if the neurological evidence is weighed, it gives manipulation primacy over pyrotechnology. If you unwittingly pick up a hot object from a stove, you will feel its shape before you feel its conducted heat. This is because the neural pathways for gripping and manipulating were wired in millions of years before the need of our primate ancestors to detect heat. Like all other animals except rhinoceri, humans are naturally afraid of fire, and should be. No doubt its mastery was achieved tentatively, by daring excursions to pick up dry sticks ignited by lightning or wildfire, or by poking long branches into flowing lava. Inventive and desperate, humans would eventually learn how to use fire to cauterize wounds, both extending individual lifespans and, thereby, protecting a critical size for social function in a species that, more than any other, needed to depend on one another in order for the collective to survive.

Yet even today we say, “Don’t play with fire.” But we don’t say, “Don’t play.” We are experimental creatures. We experiment, we discover, and we yearn to impress. In order to impress, we need something that allows us to express, to easily share our triumphs and discoveries. To do that, wee need more than hoots and barks and grunts. We need language.

In the trial and error of controlling fire and kicking hornet’s nests, there were doubtless more failures than successes. In order to endure, it is more important to survive at a familiar subsistence lifestyle than it is to follow a leader over a cliff who insists, “If birds fly, so can we.” In watching the peril of disinhibited humans today, it is not difficult to imagine a leader ever more conservative than any we see now. And it is easy to imagine humans as more emotional in a fearful environment than in a safer one. So as vocalization grew, it is easier to imagine a careful, emotional leader screaming, “Stop!” than, “Be careful as you approach the edge of the cliff.”

It is difficult to imagine a valid argument for the emergence of language that ignores what has become inextricably imbedded in it today: gestures and expressions. Especially gestures. Among our distant forefathers, there is one situation in which communication and coordination was at a premium, but so was silence: hunting. For these essential activities, whose outcomes meant prosperity or hardship, a series of commonly understood signs – such as pointing a direction and indicating a number of hunters to move in a certain direction by raising and pointing a corresponding number of fingers – would suffice without requiring even rudimentary speech.

As with deaf individuals, a sufficient range of utilitarian gestures may have measured out survival until spoken language. If a gesture were in place before the vocal apparatus and neural program essential to speech, it would likely be retained for familiarity while speech developed, and used as visible punctuation, adding emphasis or clarification. But when silence was an advantage, as in hunting, the commonly understood hand signs would continue as they had, perhaps for many hundreds of thousands of years. Time and experience would have taught that slow cooperative encirclement is more efficient, conserves more energy and creates fewer individual risks than pursuit of game by relay. When the hunters are few and the risks great, the economy of this method is no less valid today than it was a million years ago. Gestures comprise the communication of choice among elite forward forces, such as Rangers and SEALS.

Gestures are a form of visible emphasis. But they are also, like our appendix, vestigial reminders of a time when we did not speak, both because we could not speak and because any vocalization would give us away. From another perspective, sign language was the first form of code. It included all that was needed for the desired insiders to act, and gave away nothing to others who did not understand the gestures. By strange but inevitable coincidence, language is primal and tribal. Its unique form and sounds include embedded shibboleths that simultaneously include natives and exclude others. Sadly, language is both the great uniter and the great divider. To a multilingual speaker, the world is his or her proverbial oyster. To the monolingual tribesman, global limitations in communication exceed possibilities.

Selected Works

suspense mystery
For every emerging independent woman today, men can be little better than annoying at best and downright monstrous at worst. A creation of a stolen NSA computer program, Fiona Halloran is launched into the present to assist faltering novelist Andy Delaney capture the market that has evaded him, the one for and about women. But there’s an emerging risk: increasing personal danger to them both. This doesn’t stop when they finish his latest novel, Babes & Bastards. It just spills over to the next best seller in a series starring Fiona Halloran, Nun No More. Look for it soon in a bookstore near you.
In the dying Montana town of Sanctuary, helf-Crow Deputy Redfawn Kravitz relentlessly tracks the killer of Senate candidate Jeb Holloway, who then starts picking off the best suspects, one-by-one.
Using only sounds as clues, a blind man must locate his six-year-old niece before kidnappers kill her.
historical mystery
Just before Oktoberfest in 1931, Adolf Hitler's niece and secret lover is found dead in a locked room in the Fuhrer's Munich flat. Pressured by the Nazis, the police rule it a suicide, but evidence suggests a cold blooded execution. If the killer can be outed, widespread outrage will thwart a maniac's rush to power.
Satire
A cheated wife goes way overboard to get revenge on - and a fair settlement from -- her uberrich husband, with terrifyingly hysterical results.
literary mystery
Little Gods is prep school noir, like A Separate Peace as if it were written by Alfred Hitchcock.
action adventure
A clandestine biowar attack on America reduces society to medieval chaos.
Fiction
Approaching Christmas, a winter blizzard locks Chicago in snow. Among its residents, retired FBI poisons expert Tad Lindholm is a haunted man. Haunted by his past, haunted by his recently dead lover Yvette, haunted by the long shadows of too many empty booze bottles, haunted by depression, and tempted by an arsenal of deadly doses to end it all. At the same time, he is trapped by lingering suspicions that he alone synthesized the traceless toxins responsible for recent deaths. Numb with stubbornness, encircled by intersecting mysteries, Lindholm pursues the real killers among his enemies, only to discover an unimaginably personal betrayal.