Let’s all use the word ‘Interlocutor’ more often

Today is international polysyllablitis awareness day. I hope you can spread the word so that people will better understand this debilitating condition and try to support those that suffer from it.

Polysyllablitis is a communication disability that primarily affects people that read too many fancy books. The main symptom is a swollen vocabulary, leading to frequent difficulty in finding an acceptable word to express a concept they are trying to convey. Such difficulty typically manifests in uncomfortably long pauses mid-sentence, because the speaker was about to say that the proposed expedition to a nightclub would be ‘inimical to his health‘, but didn’t want people to think him a ponce for saying a fancy word like ‘inimical‘, yet the alternatives ‘it would make me feel bad‘ or ‘I’m tired‘ (average syllable count per word = 1.0) refused to present themselves to his desperately searching mind.

For this to happen just occasionally – say every couple of months – is manageable. Many people have such experiences. But people with really serious polysyllablitis (known as PSI to health and remedial vocabulary professionals) can suffer such attacks as often as several times a day. At such frequencies it can become terribly debilitating. Sorry, I mean it makes the person feel really bad.

Chronic sufferers have complained of persistent diffidence (meaning they often feel shy), disorientation (they feel dumb or lost), isolation (they feel lonely) and melancholy (they feel sad).

I have studied this phenomenon (sorry, I mean thing) for many years now. I think there is hope for the sufferers, as long as they don’t get excluded (shut out) from society. That’s why we need this awareness day. If people can keep a look out for others that may be suffering this malady (it makes them ill) they will be able to find ways to help them, reassure them (make them feel good) and put them on the road to rehabilitation (get better).

The best way to help these unfortunates (poor guys) is to include them in your conversations. When they say an unnecessarily fancy word, or get stuck mid-sentence with that look on their face that says they can’t remember the normal-people’s word for ‘lugubrious’*, the best thing to do is to gently correct them, remind them of the normal-person word while making clear that we still love and accept them. (*it’s ‘sad’). Studies have shown that these inclusionary strategies (being nice to them) are in most cases highly efficacious (they work).

However, in my years of study, there is one word for which I have simply never found a way of translating it into normal person speech, and that is the word ‘interlocutor‘ – being ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation‘. I have searched in vain for a simple alternative. The closest I’ve seen is ‘discussant’ but that has the dual problems that (1) it’s ugly and (2) I suspect it’s not a real word.

The next most reasonable alternative seems to be to replace the word with its definition ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation’. But that doesn’t really help much, as that ‘whom’ is bound to raise eyebrows, not to mention the monarchical ‘one’ (sorry – I mean like how the queen would speak). Plus inserting that long string of words into a sentence raises the risk of apparent poseur-ness because of the length of one’s sentences.

‘He’s always interrupting those with whom he is having conversation‘ just doesn’t have the pizazz of ‘He’s always interrupting his interlocutors‘.

I doubt Hemingway would approve.

It wouldn’t matter if it was a useless word, like that silly old ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ that schoolboys used to quiz each other on, but nobody ever used in a genuine sentence. That was, until the Guinness Book of Records people wanted to get in on the act and invented ‘floccipausinihilipilification’, just so that people would buy their book to find out about the new record-breaking word.

Of course if you want a long word that’s actually used by proper people, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which at 34 letters is longer than either of those non-words to boot. Plus it’s used by Mary Poppins, who is cool and not anything like a social reject that got her head stuck in a dictionary, so it must be OK.

But, unlike antidisestablishmentarianism, interlocutor is not a useless word. How can one talk about conversations one had yesterday without using it? More importantly, how can one give counselling and therapy to PSI sufferers if one cannot tell them useful things like ‘try to use the same words that your interlocutors use‘? The word is simply too useful to discard. I find myself needing to use it at least seven times per day on average. I’d be lost without it.

I can only see one way out of this conundrum (tricky thing). That is to make interlocutor an honorary normal person’s word. We could do that by all making an effort to use it at least once a day. Then before long it would seem as normal as ‘but’. There are precedents for this. Normal people use the pentasyllabic ‘qualification’ when talking about who might get into the finals in the footy, and the quadrasyllabic ‘ceremony’ when talking about who earns the right to humiliate themselves in the next round of a reality TV show. So I think, If we all make an effort, we can create some space for ‘interlocutor’ in normal people’s language.

I leave you today with these two requests:

  1. Please keep an eye out for PSI sufferers, and try to be kind to them (and help them to get better); and
  2. Try to use interlocutor as often as is consistent with common decency.

Just remember, no matter how strange and scary they seem, every PSI sufferer is somebody’s son or daughter.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2016

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Standing on one leg. Number One in a series of Adult Amusements

Have you ever been in a meeting or other group activity that was just dragging along, keeping you teetering interminably on the edge of profound boredom? It happens to me quite often.

When children are caught in this sort of situation – such as in church or on a long car journey – they can relieve their feelings by complaining to their responsible adult ‘I’M BORED’ or ‘Are we there yet?

But we poor adults do not have that excellent outlet available to us. Partly because we have no responsible adult to complain to, and partly because people would judge us if we were to blurt out such phrases.

So I thought it was time that somebody came to the rescue of the wretched responsible adults that have to endure these situations. To that end, I am starting a series devoted to equipping adults with the tools to amuse themselves and stave off boredom, when caught in unexciting, unavoidable group activities.

I don’t know how long the series will be – perhaps not long at all. It is, after all, so much harder for adults to amuse themselves than it is for children, to whom everything is new and exciting (until they reach adolescence, when suddenly everything becomes old and beneath contempt).

Here, then, is my first piece of Useful Advice For Bored Adults.

Stand on one leg!

Start by lifting one foot just a little off the floor, and see how long you can keep it off. If you only lift it a tiny bit, nobody will notice, and it may not affect your balance much. You may find you can do it for ages.

Once you’ve mastered that, which might be straightaway, or might take a little while, start increasing the height to which you raise the foot. The higher it goes, the higher one’s centre of gravity is and the easier it is to overbalance.

Don’t overdo it with the high foot. If you raise your foot above your waist, people might start to look at you funny. But kudos to you if you can do that and remain balanced though. I couldn’t do it to save my life.

I recommend that, once you can sustain the foot at near knee level, you move to the next phase, which I think of as the Aboriginal pose. I think that name springs up in my mind because when I was a wee lad, for some reason the pictures we were shown of traditionally-living Australian Aborigines in the outback often showed them standing like this. I am a little nervous of calling it that in a public blog, lest anybody think it disrespectful. That is certainly not my intent. And, since the ability to sustain the pose is an admirable skill, I am hoping that it is not considered disrespectful. It certainly seems no worse, and probably much better, than saying that somebody gave a ‘Gallic shrug’, which seems a fairly accepted (if somewhat dated) turn of phrase that is by no means complementary to our French cousins.

Here’s what that pose consists of: you lift one leg and bring the foot of that leg to rest with the sole against the side of the knee of the other leg. More advanced practitioners may even rest the foot on the thigh above the knee. Rookies may content themselves with resting the foot against the upper part of the calf.

I can do this pose a bit. I find that I can rest motionless for a while like that – maybe up to twenty seconds – then I start having to make lots of little adjustments with my planted foot to try to remain in balance. These adjustments increase in frequency and amplitude until either I overbalance and have to put the foot down, or – magical relief – I re-attain a stable body position. The latter doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s like winning gold at the Olympics! One looks around in triumph, just a little puzzled as to why the others in the group activity haven’t broken out in rapturous applause.

While engaged in this entertainment, I often overhear myself telling myself that not only am I staving off boredom, but I am burning calories, toning my leg muscles, getting closer to nature (really?) and building a much-needed sense of balance. This is based on a total number of scientific studies that was, at last count, approximately none. But I still feel good about it.

Plus, you get to feel like a four-year old for a while.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for the next instalment – ‘drawing stars’.

By the way, could it be that the reason for standing on one foot in the outback is to minimise the amount of heat soaked in from the hot sand? If so, that sounds like a very sensible arrangement. But whatever the reason, I remember always thinking that traditionally-living aborigines must have a much better sense of balance than we clumsy Europeans.

Oh, and one last thing. Remember to switch feet from time to time. Otherwise you’ll end up getting all asymmetric, like Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side of your body and Woody Allen on the other.

Which would make it hard to find clothes that fit.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2016


My Imperfect Body

When I was young, I believed my body to be functionally perfect. I wished at the time that it were better-looking, and especially for it to have less pimples, but I thought it was functionally fine, most of the time.

I suppose I thought it perfect in the sense that it could do anything that I could reasonably expect it to do. It couldn’t attract girls like Robert Redford, run as fast as Sebastian Coe or be as muscly as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it could run, jump, talk, dance, sing, read, write and do all the things seen by many as prerequisites to a full life.

Whenever I incurred an injury, there seemed to always be a potential horror lest the injury should lead to a permanent degradation of my body’s capability. One could tolerate a temporary loss of use of a limb, courtesy of a sprain or cut, but the idea of permanent loss of use was too horrific to contemplate. When I injured myself, the first thing that occurred to me was ‘I hope it’s nothing permanent‘.

Although I might have been less than Robert Redford in some schoolboyish calculus of value, I didn’t want to be reduced to less than I was at present.

Indeed, I expected my body to get better – stronger, faster, fitter, taller, less pimpled – and it generally did, up to the mid-twenties, maybe even longer than that for some activities, like long-distance running.

It was an obsessive attitude – like somebody that has a new car and is terrified that it might get a tiny scratch. It’s not that I spent time worrying about it. It was just that whenever an injury happened there was that sudden concern lest there be a permanent scratch.

The analogy isn’t a good one though, because scars were one change that I was perfectly prepared to accept. As long as they didn’t affect my body’s ability to function, and weren’t on my face, I was happy to accumulate scars. I suppose I imagined that they made me seem more manly. I have a dent in my right quadricep from running into a wire fence in the dark in 1987, a dent in my scalp from ducking insufficiently as I ran through a gap in a wrought-iron fence in 1996, a gouge in my left shin from slamming it into the iron footrest on the milk truck I worked on in 1979, when I slipped as I ran up to it, and from 1980 a scar across my right palm where I slipped with a milk bottle that then broke and stuck into my hand (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that running is a safe sport). I have many more scars, but those are the most noteworthy ones. And they’re only visual blemishes. They have no impact on function.

So it came as a shock the first time I had to accept a permanent loss of capacity. I’m not exactly sure when this shock was. It may have been in 2000 after an operation that was less successful than I would have hoped. That was like the first crack in the dyke, and the flood soon started coming through. A few years later I obtained my first pair of reading glasses and now I can barely read anything less than two metres away.

Fortunately, one’s concern about losing function seems to diminish in inverse proportion to the rate of loss of function. Once the new vehicle is a little scratched, one doesn’t worry so much about subsequent scratches.

Now of course, the vehicle is slowing down as well. A hard half-hour time-trial run for me now is much slower than a casual, conversational one-hour cruise jog was twenty years ago. But after a while, one comes to terms with it. It doesn’t worry me (I do wonder how I’ll cope when one of the wheels falls off though, or the transmission breaks).

And with the diminishing concern comes the realisation that my body was never functionally perfect anyway. It seems less dire to deteriorate from an already imperfect position than to suddenly lose perfection.

I wonder if there is anyone in this world of seven billion people that is entirely happy with how their body works – the digestion perfect, teach uncavitied, sleep easily achievable each night, anxiety, shyness or embarrassment never a problem; and for females: a regular, painless and easily manageable menstrual cycle. Out of seven billion bodies there must be one that has fewer problems than anybody else. But I imagine that even that one has some small challenges.

And all bodies will deteriorate as they age. Even if biologists eventually find the answer to programmed cell death, so that there’s no longer such a malady as ‘just getting old’, we’ll all still gradually accumulate permanent damage from our interactions with rocks, roads, fences and milk bottles. Fortunately, it seems that as we age we also learn better how to accept at least some damage with equanimity.

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, June 2015