Saturday, November 5, 2011

Obiter Dicta

Talking to people about their problems makes for frequent miscues of speech and grammar, a habit stemming from something no more profound than that most of us don't know how to talk about ourselves and our personal problems to another human being. Hence, we come to the habit of trying to sound clinical, distanced, as if we have some clear grasp on what's the matter with our inner lives or internal organs. Either way, it makes for low grade comedy, and it is struggle not to laugh out loud or lecture someone on sloppy usage. I want to keep the friends and acquaintances I have.

One of the most egregious uses I can think is the promiscuous use of "potentiality" when the simpler, punchier, less ambiguous "potential" would do a better job. There's a confusion of the number of syllables in a word with the precision of expression; the more trills the tongue has to
glide over, the clearer the communication.

Another coinage that sends static crackling through my ear is the frequent use of the bizarre formation "uncomfortability". Again, there's that self-conscious nervousness that mistakes terms with centipede rhythms to be superior to more succinct words, but this instance is even more problematic,(that is to say made more confusing) by an unintended, unEmpsonesque ambiguity. Are we to think the speaker is in a state of "discomfort", which is what one arrives at through context, or is he addressing his ability to be uncomfortable at will?

The literary possibilities are rich, but this is of no aid to someone who needs to make it clear that he needs an aspirin, a therapist, or a licensed saw bones to alleviate the particular disorder, physical or psychic. It's not that I object to multi- syllabic words in everyday use, since one needs certain words to convey more elaborate ideas, but I do require that the words exist, in the dictionary if not in nature

Ugly coinages wind up in dictionaries each year, complete with the varied pronouncing keys and definitions of the different uses the term can have, but they are awkward words all the same. My favorite personal tale of someone being needlessly (and unwittingly) unclear in stating what should have been straight forward was a when I was a graduate student asking a department chair if a particular Shakespeare sequence had vacancies. He told me the classes were "impacted". I considered myself a smart guy who was fairly keen with words and their meanings even in the Seventies, but this was unclear to me; it was a strange application of a word associated with other meanings. I asked what he meant, to which he said "The classes are full." What I took from this was that there those folks who have a fear of being caught saying simple things simply; their obscurity seems to them to be a source of power.

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