Freeing our minds from the slavery of the verb ‘to be’

Originally I intended to call this essay ‘Why e-prime is such a great idea’. Then I realised that conflicted with one of my aims for the essay – to write the whole thing in e-prime.

A man named David Bourland invented the notion of e-prime as a means of making language easier to understand. E-prime differs from English in only one respect – that it omits all use of the verb ‘to be’ and its synonyms like ‘to exist’. In e-prime one can mention those verbs by putting them, either stand-alone or as part of a phrase, in quotation marks. A mention, as opposed to a use, quotes something from a foreign language – in this case English. So please don’t write me remonstrative letters about my using the forbidden verbs inside quotes. I didn’t use it. I mentioned it.

I discussed e-prime in my 2014 essay ‘On language and meaning’. In this new essay I aim to further explore the capabilities, benefits and limitations of e-prime, and to take up the challenge of writing a whole essay in that language. I will have to cover some old ground again. But I aim to make most of it new.

Why bother?

First, let’s ask: ‘why bother?’ It sounds like a lot of trouble to take over an apparent triviality. We might also fear that avoiding that verb would make language too difficult to use, given the depth of its embedding and integration into our language. It crops up almost everywhere. One might as well try to ban using the letter ‘e’.

In the next paragraph I will suggest reasons for bothering, but first I want to say that most uses of the verb create no trouble at all. When my beloved partner calls out from the other end of the house ‘Are you there Andrew?’, I know she means ‘Can you hear me, and if so can you please let me know’. If I reply “I’m in the garden”, she knows I mean that I can hear her, that she can find me in the garden if she wants to talk to me, or she can call out again and I could come to see her, if wanted.

Compare the simple clarity of that exchange, expressed in either English or e-Prime, with the verse 3:14 of the book of Exodus “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM”. Nobody knows what that means. Pragmatists like me say it means nothing. But that has not stopped theologians like St Thomas Aquinas from writing hundreds of thousands of words of dense (and in my opinion, meaningless) prose trying to explain what that sort of thing means. The same thing happens when they try to explain that the consecrated wafer “IS the body of Christ” and that “God IS the Father and God IS the Son but the Father IS NOT the Son”.

This sort of nonsense doesn’t only come from Christians, Jews or Muslims. The Vedanta school of Hinduism, with which I feel great affinity, says that “We ARE all God (Brahman)” and “This world IS Brahman’s dream”. Buddhism, with which I also fellow-travel, says “There IS no persisting self”. One can criticise the opacity of these statements as fairly as those of the previous paragraph. I think I could possibly translate the latter two into e-Prime, and thereby render them more intelligible, but I’d need another essay for that.

The other day, while idling time away on the internet, I could not stop myself reading the entirety of a blazing row between two strangers on a philosophy discussion forum about a statement by the twentieth-century mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti that “The observer IS the observed”. I find some of Krishnamurti’s writing helpful and wise, but I confess I have no idea what he meant by that one. Yet those two internet users thought it worth their while to insult and berate one another, despite never having met, for page after page because they had different interpretations of Krishnamurti’s meaning.

Even Bertrand Russell, who generally took a pragmatic approach, and has the respect of most philosophers and many others, sometimes used the verb in obscure ways. He wrote an essay entitled “It Seems, Madam?? Nay it IS”. Hamlet first uttered that phrase, to his mother. We can translate it as “It may merely SEEM to you, Mum, that I constantly feel miserable, but I can assure you that I really DO constantly feel miserable”.

Russell’s essay sought to attack the Idealist philosophy, which to some extent denied the difference between “appearance” and “reality”. Russell wanted to say that some things that ‘seem to be the case’, really ‘ARE the case’, for instance that “Edinburgh REALLY IS North of London”. But unlike Hamlet’s use of ‘it is’, I don’t think Russell or anyone else can explain his use of ‘REALLY IS’ in that Edinburgh sentence, and I find myself wondering confusedly what he meant. When confronted with such statements, I always ask myself, “How would a world where that ‘REALLY IS’ the case differ from one where it ‘only’ seems that way to anybody that ever attempted to find out, in the past present or future?” We can only answer “It would not differ in any way that we can understand, or that means anything to us”.

By the way, whether there ‘is’ a difference between appearances (or experiences) and ‘reality’ generates numerous ferocious debates amongst philosophers. People have destroyed friendships, lost families and fortunes over this meaningless question. One might view it as the modern-day version of Aquinas debating whether two angels can occupy the same space.

The disease of misused ‘is’ extends beyond philosophy and religion. Even the smallest children suffer from it. Consider the difference between ‘You are behaving like a jerk’ and ‘You ARE a jerk’. The first can serve as a loving remonstrance, and an encouragement to behave more sweetly. The other condemns the person for life. Even a three year-old, unacquainted with big words like ‘behave’, understands the difference between ‘You smell of poo’ and ‘You ARE a poo’.

Or in morals and law: ‘You have done an evil thing’ condemns strongly, but ‘You are evil’ condemns for life, with no hope of rehabilitation. Once they elect me king, I will forbid judges from pronouncing character judgements on convicted felons in their sentencing speeches. They may only pronounce judgement on the actions of the convicted felon.

In short, I claim that eschewing at least some uses of ‘to be’ can bring psychological benefits as well as benefits in clarity and morality. I also suggest that, when you read a sentence you do not understand, it might help to search it for obscure uses of that verb. If you can find one, perhaps you will discover that all the trouble stems from it, and conclude that the problem of understanding lies not with you but with the writer.

I hope that convinces you to least consider the potential benefits of reducing one’s use of the verb. As to the other obstacle I identified above – of the potential difficulty of training oneself away from an habitual use of the verb – listen to some of a three-part interview from 1997 with David Bourland himself, saved here on Youtube. I have not yet listened to all of it. But I listened to several minutes and it delighted me to realise that he did not use the verb at all. Yet he speaks so clearly, in a warm, colloquial way, like an old-style raconteur. That should suffice to show that omitting the verb would not make language more stilted and academic. Indeed, to me the opposite seemed to occur.

The verb ‘to be

The verb ‘to be’ infests English more than its equivalents do other European languages. When I started learning French at the beginning of high school, I found it odd that we had to say ‘I am Andrew’ as ‘Je m’appelle Andrew’, which literally translates as ‘I call myself Andrew’. But now it seems to me to make more sense. As Humpty Dumpty pointed out to Alice, what people call someone merely labels them. We don’t need anything beyond that. We don’t need to get into that quaint, English, overcomplicatedly metaphysical (and indefinable) concept of ‘existence’ just to introduce oneself.

One could also say ‘On m’appelle Andrew’ which means ‘people call me Andrew’ (literally: ‘One calls me Andrew’). Even better. French – one, English – nil.

What do the English mean when they say ‘I am hungry’? That sentence makes no abstract metaphysical statement. It just means they feel hungry. Again with the French, they say ‘j’ai faim’, which literally translates as ‘I have hunger’. Okay, a bit weird, but makes more sense than to declare some sort of equivalence between oneself and an adjective ‘hungry’. My father used to make fun of this English language oddity by replying, whenever one of his children said that (as we often did) ‘Hello Hungry, I’m Dad!’.

Or the weather. Which makes more sense to you: ‘It is sunny’, or ‘Il fait du soleil’, which literally translates as ‘It makes sunshine’?

Let’s not overly eulogise the French though. Any culture that can take a simple sentence like “Explain that to me” (e-prime) or “What is that?” (English) and express it as “What is this that this is?” (“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”) has no grounds for complacency.

Famous quotes with and without the dastardly verb

Let’s look at some well-known examples from literature.

Think of the infamous ‘To be or no to to be, that is the question’.

Just because Shakespeare lived long ago and has plays in all the high school syllabi, he gets a free pass on this atrocity that has confused poor innocent schoolkids for centuries, as they try to find a meaning in the silly statement. Once they receive an explanation, they usually think ‘why didn’t he just say “shall I kill myself or not?”, as he meant exactly that’. But they think it silently, because criticising Shakespeare begets not good marks at school. By the way, that sensible, unpretentious translation qualifies as perfect e-Prime.

Or “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”. Note that the English verb ‘to be’ in archaic form conjugates second person familiar as ‘thou art’, so ‘art’ doesn’t belong to the language of this essay. Again most listeners, right back to Shakespeare’s day, thought he meant ‘I can’t find you Romeo. Tell me your location’. But no, Shakespeare played a silly game of words, using the word ‘wherefore’ to mean ‘why’, so that the sentence means ‘why are you named Romeo?’ Which makes no sense, even with that translation, because Juliet had no problem with his first name but with his last name. She should have said ‘why do you belong to the Montagues?’ [The family that hated Juliet’s family, and vice versa]. David Mitchell exposed this silliness with excruciating wit and precision in an episode of ‘Upstart Crow’, but I thought of it before he did. Or at least before he produced that excellent comedy series. In any case, both ‘Tell me your location’ and ‘Why are you named Romeo [Montague]’ qualify as e-Prime.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ translates very naturally as ‘Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must want a wife’. Easy-peasy.

A trickier one: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ becomes ‘All happy families resemble one another [or, seem similar]; each unhappy family suffers for a different reason’. The e-Prime translation differs from the English one on a literal basis, but has the same meaning. The e-Prime version states explicitly the meaning that the English version veils behind poetic abstraction.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, …..’ translates as ‘On a bright cold day in April, as the clocks struck thirteen, Winston Smith, ….

Gosh, for that one we only needed to change three words and a punctuation mark. Orwell’s brilliance as a writer shows in how sparingly he uses the dreaded verb. Indeed, the second sentence of 1984, the one starting with ‘Winston Smith’, does not use the verb at all! It seems to me that avoiding the verb makes writing more alive, more active. It has a similar effect to choosing active voice over passive – a practice whose benefits people acknowledge almost as universally as Jane Austen’s dictum about rich, unmarried men.

Incidentally, Orwell’s brilliance comes through again in the book’s chilling ending:

He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.’

Not a ‘to be’ or a ‘not to be’ in sight! Take that, Shakespeare!

In fact, I think most great short quotes do not contain the dreaded verb. Consider:

Do you feel lucky, punk

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ {I know, I know, he never actually said that!]

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do

No man needs just a little salary

You can’t handle the truth!

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine

You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it, Sam!

I cannot deny the greatness of “I’ll be back”, done, of course, in an Austrian accent. But perhaps General Macarthur said it better (and earlier) with ‘I shall return’.

Gordon Gekko’s famous ‘Greed is good’ threw me a bit. I started to wonder whether we cannot talk of vices and virtues in e-prime. How does one translate ‘Patience is a virtue’? After some reflection I realised that those uses of ‘to be’ belong to the mode ‘Class Membership’, amongst the eight broad modes of how one can use ‘to be’. In English, one says ‘X is a Y’ to indicate that the item X belongs to the class Y. For instance ‘Rover is a dog’. In mathematics we would write this as Rover∈Dogs. In e-prime we could say ‘Rover belongs to the set of dogs’. Similarly, ‘Greed [and patience] belong to the set of virtues’. The first comes from Gekko, not me. I don’t think he’d agree with the second.

Or perhaps he meant ‘Cultivate your greed. Feel proud of it, not ashamed.

Different uses of ‘to be’

Class membership, together with five other modes of using ‘to be’, creates no problems at all. I’ll list the six uses:

  • Class Membership. Example: ‘Ariadne is an architect’. Translation: ‘Ariadne  belongs to the group of people we call “architects” ’.
  • Class Inclusion. Example: ‘all cats are animals’. Translation: ‘All members of the group we call cats belong to the group we call “animals” ’. In mathematics, we use the “subset of” symbol ⊆ for this, writing “cats⊆animals”.
  • Predication. Example: ‘the cat is furry’. Translation: ‘The cat has fur all over
  • Auxiliary Active. Example: ‘the cat was sleeping’. Translation: ‘The cat slept’.
  • Auxiliary Passive. Example: ‘the cat was bitten by the dog’. Translation: ‘The dog bit the cat’.
  • Location. Example: ‘the cat is on the mat’. Translation: ‘The cat sits on the mat’ or ‘The mat has the cat on it’.

The extra words in some of the translations may seem clumsy to some. But in practice, just like when one translates from German to English, one aims to translate a whole paragraph rather than just a sentence. That gives more scope for strategic manoeuvering, which generally allows a more natural, flowing translation. Sentence-by-sentence translations from German to English sound truly awful, as the infamous example of the English libretto of Haydn’s ‘Creation’ oratorio demonstrates.

Disallowing the auxiliary active seems to lose a nuance of English. We think of ‘I was jumping’ as having a different meaning from ‘I jumped’. The former describes something happening (me sleeping) while another thing happens as well, eg ‘I was jumping when I tripped and sprained my ankle’. The latter describes a completed action, eg ‘I jumped over the bar without disturbing it’. In technical grammar language, we call the former the ‘past continuous’ and the latter the ‘simple past‘ or ‘preterite‘.

In latin languages we call the past continuous the ‘past imperfect’. They implement it by changing the ending of the word, so that ‘je saute’ (‘I jump’) becomes ‘je sautais’ (‘I was jumping’). Note that French does not introduce any auxiliary verb such as ‘to be’. Instead it just alters the verb ending. The use of ‘was/were’ as an auxiliary verb in English may delight us as one of its many quirks, but it really has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be’. We could just as well use ‘made’ or ‘did’ as our auxiliary verb, as in ‘I did jumping’. Or we could invent new verb endings to signify the past progressive, eg ‘I jumpeding’. As another alternative we could mimic the way many slang expressions work, omitting common words. We could say ‘Me – jumping, right? I tripped. Yaah! Sprained ankle. Gross!

This demonstrates that in some uses of ‘to be’ it serves merely as a connector, and fell into that role by pure chance. Because we have learned the language with it in that role, we find it difficult to get by without it. We can easily fix that, by inventing new word endings as above, and/or by using slightly longer or slang constructions in some cases. Or we could allow ourselves to use ‘to be’ in those constructions, because those uses do not cause problems with logic, clarity and depression.

To me it seems easier to avoid all use of the verb, for the same reason that some people become vegetarian even though they only really object to meat from animals with unhappy lives. We find it easier to avoid all of something than to constantly have to investigate whether the particular instance facing us belongs to the acceptable class of that sort of thing. I practice vegetarianism for that reason. E-prime takes that pragmatic-vegetarianish approach to intermittently-troublesome verbs.

The troublesome uses

Two classes remain, that generate all the difficulty. Those uses inspired Bourland, and to some extend his mentor Alfred Korzybski before him, to favour constraining the use of the verb. Let’s list the two classes:

  • ‘Existence’. Example: ‘There is a God’ or ‘There is no God’.
  • ‘Identity’. Examples: ‘This is Freya’. ‘That is a kangaroo’.

“Existence”

Existence’ presents the biggest problem. Let’s reflect first on why people care whether ‘God exists’. I think they care because of what they expect God to do. Someone brought up to believe in hell may hope God does not ‘exist’, meaning they hope that they will not suffer eternal torture for eternity after their death. In that sense I think I can fairly say that I hope, and believe, that the God that the teachers and priests taught me to believe in as a child does not ‘exist’. This means I hope no cosmic dictator will sentence me to an eternity of suffering. On the other hand, someone who longs for those that suffer in this life to receive comfort and reward after death, may believe, or want to believe, in a God that will make that happen. I think that, when they say they ‘believe in God’ they mean they believe that people will receive that comfort and reward.

It may not need pointing out, but I’ll do it anyway: one may hold both of those hopes or beliefs. One may hope for a God that does not send people to hell, or even allow them to end up there, and at the same time hope for a God that will comfort and reward sufferers. Neither putative divine characteristic necessitates the other. I would like to think that most members of official religions hold both those hopes. But I feel sad to see that so often contradicted by the many powerful clerics that rail against ‘sexual sin’ (even including contraception practised by a couple who married in a church) and forecast God’s displeasure and punishment as a result. But perhaps most lay members of religions hold the life-affirming beliefs, and mostly only the power-broking clerics in their religions criticise and deny them. I find it encouraging that most Roman Catholics have never even heard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, let alone know or care about the many rules that that group of old men say God made. People who’ve never heard of the Congregation may know it by the informal name people used for it in past centuries – the Inquisition.

Yet many people do care, or say they do, about whether God ‘exists’, even if it has no consequences for them. More generally, some people passionately assert that they care whether material objects ‘exist’. Some philosophers debate with passion intensity whether a cup inside a wooden cupboard ‘exists’, in a sense that means something more than simply that if we opened the cupboard door, we would see the cup and could get it out to drink some tea with.

I see such opinions, regardless of how passionately people hold them, as deluded. Saying you believe fervently in X does not mean that you do care, if you can’t explain the meaning of X. It may mean instead that you care fervently about something that relates to what you label as X. The ex-RC may care fervently that nobody gets tortured for eternity. The Believer in Cups cares fervently about having something to drink their tea out of. They think they believe in something more than that, but they don’t.

Now I know that sounds arrogant and silly. Who gave me the right to tell other people what they really think? In my defence, I point out that I don’t claim to know what they think. I only claim to know what they don’t think – a much easier exercise. I don’t believe anybody can believe a claim that neither they nor anybody else can explain. If somebody says to me ‘I believe that nhjkn sdhg futf’, I feel entitled to say ‘I don’t think you really believe that’. I suppose my statement relates to their purported belief, not to their mind (which I cannot see). I claim, not that they don’t believe that, but that nobody can believe that, because it does not belong to the category of things that we can believe or not. We cannot believe or disbelieve the colour purple, because it does not belong to that category. Only what we call ‘propositions’, or ‘claims’ can belong to the category. To qualify as a proposition, a string of symbols or sounds must satisfy a long list of formal characteristics, including things like containing a verb. The colour purple does not count as a proposition, neither does the symbol string ‘nhjkn sdhg futf’ and neither, in my opinion, does the statement ‘I believe a God exists that will never again interact with the world’, or ‘there is a cup in that cupboard but there is no way we can ever detect that it is there’.

I hope I have at least partially convinced you that the ‘existence’ sense of ‘to be’ has no meaning. It may have a practical sense, as in ‘Unicorns do not longer exist’. But that just means I believe that, no matter whether we searched from here to kingdom come, we would never find a unicorn. If we want it to mean more than that, as those argumentative metaphysicians feel they do, we face disappointment.

If you still feel you believe otherwise, take this challenge: If you think the sentence ‘The cup is in the cupboard regardless of whether anyone can ever know that’ has meaning, ie qualifies as a ‘claim’, try to explain the difference between a world in which the claim holds and one in which it does not – without talking in circles.

“Identity”

This mode of use covers a multitude of sins. The above “This is Freya” really just communicates a name. No philosophical notion of identity gets carried along by it. We can think of it as an instruction: ‘When referring to this person, use the name “Freya” ’.

It gets more philosophical with statements like “George Orwell is Eric Blair”, or “Batman is Bruce Wayne”. Taking the first one, we know it means “The person known to his friends and family as Eric Blair wrote ‘1984’ and other famous works using the pseudonym ‘George Orwell’ ”. We could argue for ever about whether ‘Eric Blair’ means the same thing as ‘George Orwell’. I say it doesn’t. But such arguments count for nothing but idle amusement. We needn’t care about or wish to know anything other than that the man named Eric wrote under the pen-name George.

What about the mathematical concept of identity or equality? In mathematics we learn about ‘equations’ and ‘identities’, both of which use the equals sign ‘=’, which some people think of as resembling ‘is’. Let me show you an example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = 0

We might express that in words as ‘x is a number that, when we square the number, subtract twice the number from that and then add one, we get zero’. It tells us that the number to which we have given the alias ‘x’ has that property. Only one number has that property: the number 1. So the equation tells us that we gave the alias ‘x’ to the number 1.

Importantly, the equation does not say that the two things on either side of the equals sign “are” the same, ie “are identical”. Such a claim would make no sense. We can easily see the differences: for a start the thing on the left has seven characters excluding spaces, while the thing on the right has only one. A metaphysician might retort “But that’s just the labels. The two things with the different labels are the same.” To which I reply “can you explain what ‘are the same’ means?”. To which they can only answer “No”.

Mathematicians use the equals sign in two slightly different ways. I showed above the first way. We call that an ‘equation’ and we use it to work out what number x stands for.

We call the other use an ‘identity’. For example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = (x – 1)2

This holds true for any value of x, rather than just for a specific value that we want to find. We can easily explain the meaning of this equals sign in e-prime too. The identity says that, no matter what value x has, we will get the same result if we use that value to evaluate the left-hand side of the equation, as if we use it to evaluate the right-hand side.

It all works out simply, clearly and logically, as long as we don’t try to get metaphysical about it. If we do make the mistake of venturing into metaphysics, we find ourselves asking “Am I the same person that I was when I was five years old?”, to which we should reply “Come back when you can explain what your question means, and I’ll tell you the answer”.

Process metaphysics

I want to put in a plug for something called ‘process philosophy’. One might sum it up as something like “Things don’t ‘EXIST. They HAPPEN”. Or alternatively: “Objects? Bah! Stuff and nonsense. Only by thinking of the universe as a PROCESS can you begin to understand it”.

This notion goes back at least three thousand years. Heraclitus famously said “You can never step in the same river twice”. Alan Watts said something like “You ‘are’ just what the universe is doing at this particular place and time”. It delighted, but did not surprise me, to see that the above-linked Wikipedia article on process philosophy includes Alfred Korzybski – David Bourland’s mentor – in the list of paradigm-breaking thinkers that favoured this way of looking at things.

I’ll show another of my favourite quotes on process philosophy, from some famous physicist (I forget who): ‘an object is just a slow process’. I love that saying, even though it contains an ‘is’. I’d translate it into e-prime as the recommendation: “Think of objects as slow processes”.

Bertrand Russell’s chum, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the most about process philosophy. I like some of what he wrote. But he did tend to get in over his head with word long, deep, abstract word salads of questionable meaning. I think Heraclitus and Watts said it better.

Let me tell you my plan

My dear, long-suffering readers – if any of you still remain – I appreciate your attention to this point. I expect the question gets ever louder in your mind: “Andrew! Do you have a point?

Well, thank you for asking! I do have a point, or at least I’ve managed to find a sort of a one in the course of this long, verbal ramble. The point takes the form of a plan. I made the plan only for me. But you may like to consider adopting some of it too. I will tell you what I plan to do, and why.

I plan to try my very best to eliminate uses of ‘to be’ in the ‘Existence’ and ‘Identity’ modes from my language. They cause nothing but trouble.

For the other six uses, I will aim to use them less, but with varying degrees of intensity. Let me list them in decreasing order of how intensely I will seek to avoid them:

  • I will most strenuously avoide the Auxiliary Passive. I can think of cases where that mode provides useful nuances: ‘He was bitten by a werewolf’ has a different feeling to ‘A werewolf bit him’ – it moves the focus from the biter to the one that suffered the bite. But I think we can achieve those nuances without using ‘to be’. I would say ‘He got bitten by a werewolf’. In primary school they taught me to avoid the words ‘get’ and ‘got’, and that I should regard them as vulgar. But I now feel old enough to disagree. I find them tremendously useful words, and for me, ‘got bitten’ describes the event much better than ‘was bitten’. Remember process philosophy. A bite happens. And no word communicates happeningness (process) better than ‘got’.
  • Location. Like Auxiliary Passive, this sounds too passive. I also find it too vague. The statement ‘The cat is on the mat’ doesn’t even tell us whether the cat still lives. It could refer to the cat’s corpse lying on the mat. So let us instead say ‘The sat sits on the mat’ (or even ‘is sitting’, since I do not propose to ban the Auxiliary Active) or ‘The cat’s corpse lies on the mat’.
  • Predication. I can’t see much excuse for this either. For me, ‘The cat has long fur’ and ‘You look red (or You’ve gotten sunburnt)’ work much better than ‘The cat is furry’ and ‘You are red’ (Hello Red, pleased to meet you!). In particular the ‘look’ forces acknowledgement that looks can deceive, and perhaps only a trick of the light makes me think you’ve gotten sunburnt. Plus, we’ve already covered how, for the sake of psychological balance and world peace, we must say ‘You are treating me nastily’ (please stop) rather than ‘You are nasty’ (condemnation and life sentence).
  • I have no objection to the Auxiliary Active type. I find it difficult to avoid, and trying to avoid it blocks fluency. Since the ‘am/is/are/was/were’ in such cases serves only as a connector and does not purport to have any formal meaning – any more than the “t” in the French “qu’a t’il dit” (“what has he said?”) means anything – we introduce no ambiguity by using it. Nevertheless, I find it more lively and direct to say ‘As she lay sleeping, the poisonous spider crawled over the mattress and up onto her cheek’ than ‘She was sleeping, when the poisonous spider …..’. Or perhaps ‘As she slept…’ works better still.
  • I’ve decided that Class Membership and Class Inclusion cause no harm. They have clear meanings and present no apparent potential for ambiguity. Further, translating sentences using those modes to e-prime can make sentences longer, as we saw with the above examples. I’ll relax about using those modes. But I’ll still keep an eye open for opportunities to replace them with an e-prime phrase when the latter sounds shorter and sweeter.

There you have it. Two modes banned. Three avoided where possible, and three avoided only when convenient. Perhaps I will call that strategy e-half-prime, since it would cut out only about half the uses of ‘to be‘ and its fellow travellers. Once I have mastered the skill of speaking and writing in e-half-prime, misunderstandings will no longer occur, wars will cease, universal joy and harmony will come ever closer.

I’ll let you know how I go. If it fares well, perhaps I can persuade you to join me. If not for the whole kit and kaboodle, perhaps just reducing your uses of ‘to be’, to give your language a fresher, clearer, more direct feel. Remember, if you can’t say it in e-half-prime, perhaps you’d better not say it (or at least you’d serve no purpose by saying it).

Try it. You might just like it.

And if it achieves nothing else, it will prevent us from ever saying that a child “is” naughty, that oneself “is” an inadequate failure, or that somebody, anybody, no matter how rotten their behaviour, “is” evil. Not Scott Morrison. Not Peter Dutton. Not even Donald Trump.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2019

PS I have searched this essay for all uses of the various versions of ‘to be‘ that I could think of. I found plenty, and removed (translated) them. Perhaps I have missed some. If you find any, please let me know so that I may remove them. You will have my sincere gratitude.

PPS You can read some other people’s opinions on e-prime at the following links:


Mud

Where I live, near Sydney’s Eastern beaches, we have something we call mud. But it is not proper mud. Sure, it marks clothes, necessitating a wash, but is otherwise unremarkable.

I am currently in North Devon in England, where it has drizzled on every one of the six days since I arrived here.

Here they have PROPER mud.

It is sticky yet somehow also slippery. It makes squelchy noises when you tread in it. I went jogging beside a canal in Stratford-upon-Avon and, after the path ended, there was only grass interspersed with boggy bits of naked mud. I did my best to skirt around them, but that wasn’t possible in all cases and once or twice I had to actually tread in the mud. It looked very precarious, especially with the freezing canal only a metre away, ready to gobble me up if I slipped. As it happened, I only slipped once, falling away from the canal rather than towards it. My glove is now coloured by a souvenir of that special mud.

Sydney mud has too much sand in it.

English mud seems much more fertile. Mud is quickly regrown by vegetation if left undisturbed. Wherever I see mud I also see lush, fertile grass or close-packed, flourishing vegetable crops just nearby.

In that sense, mud is great – it is life.

But it is also death. The Great War, at least on the Western Front, seemed to be all about mud. It contaminated water to help spread disease, afflicted soldiers with Trench Foot, and it trapped horses, gun carriages and even soldiers, who could find themselves stuck in a position that was exposed to opposition gunfire. The bodies of soldiers killed by machine-gun fire, where they weren’t suspended on rolls of barbed wire, were soon partly or wholly swallowed up by mud. It was part of the horror.

3rd-ypres_stretcher-bearers-in-mud_1917

There is something extraordinary about European mud. It is mythical. That’s why they write songs about it.

Perhaps it’s not just European mud. The song I had in mind was ‘Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud’, which I find is called ‘the Hippopotamus Song’ and is by Flanders and Swann (I had always assumed it was supposed to be a song for pigs). But a bit of web-searching informs me there are also lots of songs about American mud, although mostly in the South.

As the spine-chilling Maori Haka says, ‘It is death it is death it is life it is life…’ (‘Ka mate Ka mate Ka ora Ka ora’). One can imagine that life on Earth first originated in mud. There is so much richness in good mud, it would be difficult for life not to arise.

I realise that may not be scientific. I think a key reason why mud is so fertile is that it’s mostly organic, made up of lots of decayed organisms, animal and vegetable. So maybe they didn’t have mud on Earth before life arose, what with there being no decayed organisms around. Who knows, there was nobody there to write it down.

But even if life didn’t originate in mud, I bet that, once originated, it did an awful lot of evolving in there. We humans evolved in Africa, so I bet they have really impressive mud there. I’ve only been to North Africa, which is sandy, like Sydney, so I have never encountered real, proper African mud, of the sort that Joseph Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where they have proper mud, I urge you to give it a thought next time you get caught in or covered by it, rather than just cursing as you head for the washing machine. Mud is magical stuff. No wonder little children loving playing in it.

Andrew Kirk

Woolacombe, North Devon, December 2017


The Lorax of Bondi Junction – a Tale of mortal enemies, vulnerable dependants, and obsession

There are two lovely trees in my garden. It seems to be my life’s remaining mission to try to save these trees from the attempts of the local possums to kill them. They do this by climbing into the trees and systematically stripping off buds and young leaves, leaving branch after branch a grim, ravaged skeleton.

The war has been running for several years now. It is not always the same possum, but it is usually only one at a time. Possums are territorial and defend their territory against interloper possums with vigour. I don’t know what has led to the two or three changes of the possum guard we have had since the war began. Perhaps the incumbent died. Or perhaps they were ousted by a more powerful interloper. While the actors may change, the role – the archetype – remains constant. ‘The possum’ is the unitary force of darkness that seeks to turn my garden to a barren, Mordorish wasteland, regardless of which particular possum is playing the role in any given year.

There are now two trees that the possum does it best to kill, but at first it was only one tree – an Albizia or ‘Silk Tree’ – a deciduous tree with a spreading canopy of lovely, silky-soft fern-like fronds.220px-Albizia_julibrissin4

They remind me of the Truffula tufts in Dr Seuss’s story of The Lorax, who tried to save the Truffula trees from the greedy depredations of the Once-ler. The tree was planted about twelve years ago to replace a tree that died, grew quickly and flourished for several years, delighting us with its beauty and its cool shade in summer. But then the possum arrived!

But did the possum arrive, like the greedy, destructive Once-ler in Seuss’s book? Was it a possum explorer that ‘discovered’ this ‘uninhabited’ territory in the same way that the plaque below Captain Cook’s statue in Hyde Park claims that he “discovered” this territory of Australia. Did the possum claim the territory for his possum king, thereby instantly erasing the rights of any existing residents, just as Cook did? Or was the possum there all along, never bothering about the Albizia until one day it munched some as an experiment and discovered how delicious it was? Were we ever peaceful cohabitants? I don’t know. But whatever the genesis, the war started a few years back when I realised one day that it was December and the Albizia had no leaves. It had always been late waking from its winter slumber, so I had never been concerned when it lagged other deciduous plants. But December? I thought maybe it has some disease, and took some of the skeletal fronds – stripped of greenery – to a garden shop, where they told me it was either possums or rats. I did the experiment they suggested (leave cloths around base of tree overnight, then examine for droppings the next day) and confirmed that it was a possum – they have larger droppings than rats.

I was devastated. They say you don’t realise how much you love until the subject of your love is threatened. Well, I realised.

What followed was a series of all sorts of strategies to protect the tree. I won’t bore you with the details, but the list includes spraying repellant on the leaves, hanging camphor balls from branches, installing a motion-activated ultrasonic noise-maker, winding fairy lights over the branches, putting various types of plastic spikes on branches and the nearby fence, leaving a powerful, timer-activated floodlight pointed at the tree and even shrouding possum-accessible parts of the tree in clear, flexible perspex that a possum cannot grip. At times the tree has looked more like a missile bunker than a beautiful piece of nature.

The most successful strategies have been the floodlight and the perspex sheeting. But neither seems sustainable to me. Although it’s very energy-efficient LED, the floodlight uses 50 watts of energy for eight to ten hours a night, depending on the time of year – almost half a kilowatt hour per day. That may not sound like much to you but to a radical greenie like me that feels like treason to my most dearly-held principles. As for the perspex sheeting, the trouble is that it acts as a sail in the wind, putting enormous strains on the connection points and the branches when we get our ‘Southerly Busters’ that bring blasts of welcome cool air from the Southern Oceans at the end of some scorching summer days. After particularly windy days there is often repair work to be done, and I feel bad that the loud noise the sails make may disturb our neighbours.

Further, every now and then, even those Best Practice strategies fail. A new possum takes up residence that is less afraid of light, or the possum works out a sneaky way around the perspex barricades. I am always in search of a solution that doesn’t have such loopholes, or the high maintenance of the sails or the energy consumption of the light.

In war the most important weapon is information. My primary source of information is an infrared camera that I mount on a tripod and which wirelessly transmits to a base station that records video. When I suspect the possum is breaching the defences, I deploy the camera overnight and review the footage in the morning to see if it has broken through and if so how. I then use that information to work out how to plug the gap.

Reviewing the video in the morning is an angst-ridden experience. You watch hours of nothing happening, at 32 times fast-forward speed, then suddenly the possum creeps into view, its eyes glowing in the infrared like a demon. It contemplates the tree, tries this approach – blocked, then that – blocked again. On a good day it goes away defeated. But on a bad day it tries something new and by some unbelievable feat of gymnastic agility manages to get a claw hold on some part of the trees wood and wrestle its way up into the canopy. Once there it proceeds to massacre the tree at its leisure. It’s like watching CCTV of a bully beating up a dear friend, with no help in sight, and you, the viewer, helpless to intervene because it has all already happened. Words cannot do justice to the sick feeling I get in my stomach when that happens. But I have to force myself to watch the torture, second by miserable second, because only by doing so can I hope to learn how to prevent its recurrence.

Which brings me to the topic of this essay – obsession. My family and friends chuckle about me and my war. I can well understand that it appears as a monomaniacal obsession – the sort of thing that arty fiction is written about. But what sort of obsession is it? There are two great works of fiction that in my mind compete to represent my battle: Moby Dick and The Fourth Wish.

You probably know the story of Moby Dick, even if you haven’t read all of it (I never made it past about page 100). The story is of Captain Ahab who, having had his leg bitten off by a huge white sperm whale, spends the rest of his life pursuing the whale around the seas, obsessed with obtaining his revenge, and (spoiler alert!) eventually being killed by the whale in a final battle. Ahab’s obsession is beyond all reason. It consumes him, when he could have led a perfectly enjoyable and prosperous life as a ship’s captain. Is The Possum my Moby Dick?

The Fourth Wish is quite different. It is a three-part TV drama from 1974, remade as a movie in 1976, about a single father whose school-aged son is dying of leukaemia. The father asks his son to make three wishes, and then does all he can to make the wishes come true before the child dies. Fulfilling those wishes for his son is the father’s obsession (the father is played by the late John Meillon, who became much more famous subsequently for his role as Walter in the Crocodile Dundee movies). He is an inarticulate, emotionally repressed, not terribly capable person. But he rises to the occasion in his desperate quest to make his son’s limited remaining life memorable and fulfilling. It is the first television or movie drama I can ever remember having been moved by – I would have been eleven at the time. Meillon does a marvellous job of conveying the father’s tremendous sadness.

My story is of the tree and the possum and me. If we focus on the enmity with the possum, it parallels Moby Dick. In Moby Dick there is no counterpart to the tree – no character that needs protecting. On the other hand if we focus on the nurturing side, it is like The Fourth Wish. In that case there is no counterpart to the possum, unless we anthropomorphise the leukaemia and cast it in that enemy role.

Having written all that, and read it over, I think it is more Fourth Wish than Moby Dick. Ahab’s obsession was founded in hatred and revenge. I don’t hate the possum, even though it is my enemy. I expect I would kill it if I could, but humanely, and as a regrettable necessity, certainly not as revenge. The creature is only trying to live. If it would agree to go easy on the Albizia I would readily forgive its past savageries. I’m sure we could become great friends. But alas, it will not. It is not the possum’s fault that it doesn’t have the foresight to spread its foraging between many different trees in order that all of them may flourish. I feel great sorrow when I see the tree’s ravaged limbs. I so want to do something to help it, yet I feel as though I am up against implacable odds.

The story of the second tree is similar to that of the first. A red gum, it was planted about three years ago as a mature sapling, and very soon grew and flourished. It has almost tripled in height. But a few months ago I noticed that its canopy of leaves – formerly rich and luxuriant, was looking thin and sickly. Going up closer to look, I saw that many branches had had most of their leaves bitten off – the tell-tale chewed stubs bearing testament to what had happened. Deploying the camera overnight, my fears were confirmed – it was the possum. From then on I knew that I had two patients to protect from the predator, when before there was only one.

There is another story that this saga reminds me of – Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In that novel, Lucy Westenra, a vivacious young friend of the narrator’s fiancee, is vulnerable to the hypnotic spell of Count Dracula, who is able to lure her in the middle of the night, in a sleepwalking trance, out of her heavily protected house to the wild lands that surround it, where he feasts on her blood. Each time that happens she loses masses of blood and gets weaker and her friends don’t know how to help her. They save Lucy’s life several times after she has suffered otherwise fatal blood loss, by giving her transfusions of their own blood. Each time they do this, they take further measures to try to keep Dracula away and Lucy safely in her room. But repeatedly, after Lucy has recovered for a few days and is starting to look healthy again, Dracula finds a new way to lure her out, and she is found near death’s door again. Finally, this happens one too many times, and she dies (sort of, but to say any more would be a spoiler).

It may seem a little melodramatic to cast the possum as Dracula, and my beloved trees as a Victorian heroine, but when I see those eyes suddenly appear out of the dark, glowing like demonic coals in the infra-red image of the CCTV, it doesn’t feel far-fetched at all. By trying every strategy I have, I manage to keep the demon at bay for a few days, so the tree can recover and grow a few new leaves (so it can breathe! – just like we need blood to carry our oxygen). Then, one night, the possum gets into the tree, savages it and I find it in the morning at death’s door again.

Here’s a picture of the possum, demonic coal-like eyes and all, posing grimly atop the almost-cadaver of its victim.

cropped possum

The war continues. I have bought another floodlight. Now I am using 90 Watts when both lights are on – one for each tree. I will have to buy carbon credits to offset the electricity. I have also devised new defences involving longer spikes arrayed along the top of the fence, in an attempt to deny the possum a launching pad. If they turn out to be effective, maybe I can turn the lights back off so that I won’t be single-handedly responsible for pushing global warming beyond the point of no return. Time will tell.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2017


About the Devil

What a strange concept is Satan, the devil! He occupies such a large part in Western culture and literature that few people ever stop to reflect on the weirdness of the idea of a single person that is responsible for all the bad things in the world. Certainly I never considered it until the other day.

Satan seems to me to be a particularly Christian concept, in emphasis if not in origin. Other religions have supernatural beings with varying degrees of benevolence or malevolence, but I don’t think the concept of a single Prince of Darkness is widespread. China, India and Japan have mythologies replete with good and evil spirits, but no single spirit has control of all the bad stuff. For instance the Ramayana’s Rawanna, king of demons, comes across as more naughty than evil. So does Loki from Norse mythology. Actually Rawanna is a good deal less frightening to me than the Indian goddesses of destruction Kali and Durga, both of whom are worshipped by perfectly nice, law-abiding, kind people. I get the two mixed up, but one or both of them wears a necklace of skulls and is portrayed dancing on the bodies of those she has slain.

Chinese folk religion seems to encompass a multitude of evil spirits. We have to orient our houses the right way and do specific things with water, air, numbers and chants to keep them at bay.

Having multiple bad spirits seems to me like having a proliferation of petty criminals, whereas Satan is more like how Stalin appeared to the West at the height of the Cold War – the supreme leader of a tremendously powerful organisation capable of doing unfathomable harm. Some people, perhaps out of nostalgia for the good old days of the cold war, tried to resurrect that image with people like Osama Bin Laden, but it never really caught on. Stalin could have killed hundreds of millions just by pressing a button. Osama Bin Laden – to be blunt – couldn’t.

Satan does get the occasional mention in the two other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam. After all, he makes his debut appearance in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis chapter three, which all three Abrahamic religions share.

But while I don’t know a whole lot about either Judaism or Islam, a bit of googling about devils in Judaism and Islam didn’t turn up anything with a prominence like the following from the RC baptismal rite:

      Celebrant:Do you reject Satan?

      Parents & Godparents: I do.

      Celebrant: And all his works?

      Parents & Godparents: I do.

      Celebrant: And all his empty promises?

      Parents & Godparents: I do.

You know you’ve made it to the big-time when an organisation with a billion members makes three successive references to you in the induction ceremony for every one of its new members.

The biggest speaking part that Satan is given in the Jewish scriptures – to my knowledge – is in the Book of Job, where he wagers with God (Yahweh) about whether Job can be induced to curse Yahweh if enough suffering is inflicted on him. Job is a fascinating book, partly because Satan comes across in it as a less malevolent entity than Yahweh. But I wouldn’t want my fate to be in the hands of either of them, as portrayed therein. There’s not a lot of ‘Duty of Care‘ going on.

Satan’s literary influence is so pervasive that his avatars pop up in secular literature as well. Classic instances of that are Sauron from Lord of the Rings and Voldemort from Harry Potter. Both are known as ‘the Dark Lord’ and have the honorific ‘Lord’ affixed before their name. One might ascribe Tolkien’s symbolism in Lord of the Rings to his Roman Catholicism. On the other hand JK Rowling is not a Christian, yet her use of such a clear Satan substitute shows how deeply embedded the role of Satan has become in Western culture, both religious and secular.

From a literary standpoint, having the notion of Satan is a wonderful cultural advantage. Pitting the hero(s) against the overwhelming odds of a leader of a massively powerful army of evil is so much more gripping than against a mere mortal villain.

Both Tolkien and Rowling hedged their bets a bit though. Both allude in their mythologies to earlier evils, which in some sense detracts from the uniqueness of their Dark Lords. With Tolkien it was Morgoth, while Rowling had Grindelwald. I think the latter name is unfortunate because Grindelwald is the name of a lovely village in the Swiss alps. I went there about thirty-five years ago and did not encounter any dark forces. But maybe it has changed since then.

Western culture has a rich tradition of tales about Satan and his followers. That has given us such chilling works of fiction as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. The English author Dennis Wheatley wrote a series of best-selling novels about Satanist cults conjuring up the devil in gothic country mansions, sacrificing virgins and doing other dastardly deeds. Going back further in time we have Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. I have not read any of these three, although I know the story of Faust. I am keen to find time to read Paradise Lost (if only it weren’t so LONG!) because it is said that it presents Satan as a complex, multi-faceted character that is in some senses almost a tragic hero, rather than just the pure evil image to which we are generally subjected.

I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil entirely, although I said I did, both to others and to myself, because that was a requirement of the religion in which I was raised. I found Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen scary, but not so much The Exorcist.

On reflection, I think what scared me most about Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen was not the devil but rather his creepy followers. In Rosemary’s baby it was the solicitous, secretly Satan-worshipping neighbours that befriended Rosemary and took advantage of her trusting nature to gradually poison her with various herbs that they told her were medicine for a mild ailment she had. In The Omen it was the creepily motherly yet homicidal nursemaid, plus the kid Damian (son of Satan) who killed people by doing things like crashing his tricycle into them at the top of the stairs so that they fell and broke their neck. Malevolent children are always scary, regardless of whether any evil spirits are in sight. Horror movies love to make use of them, and ‘Lord of The Flies‘ is like the apotheosis of the evil children genre. How apt that William Golding chose the title ‘Lord of The Flies‘ for that novel, which is a translation of Beelzebub, one of Satan’s many names.

The book that scared me the most was Dracula. I read it at much too young an age and spent the next several years sleeping in terror with my head under the blankets to try to keep the vampires away. As far as I recall Dracula doesn’t actually mention the devil at all. Count Dracula is evil, but there is no suggestion in Bram Stoker’s book that he is unique.

I wonder what it is that made Satan such a prominent figure in Christianity, and the cultures that were heavily influenced by Christianity.

One theory I’ve come across is that, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century CE, the Romans sought to spread the religion by discrediting the existing folk religions of Europe, many of which involved some sort of worship of nature and fertility. The sort of ‘dancing in a circle, naked in the woods‘ image that is associated in modern times with witches’ covens and satanic cults (in the popular imagination at least – whether also in reality I have no idea) may have been a feature of those pre-Christian folk religions. So associating them with a powerful evil figure would have been a way to discredit those religions, and maybe to justify suppressing them.

That theory has an intuitive appeal, but strikes the problem that for many of those folk religions the anthropomorphic image of nature that was worshipped was female – a mother goddess. Yet Satan is male.

An equally plausible, and rather simpler, explanation is that the notion of an immensely powerful Dark Lord just makes for a great story, and great stories make for successful social movements.

There’s an interesting theological conflict between the notion of Satan as the Embodiment of Evil on the one hand, and on the other, the Roman Catholic doctrine that evil is an absence of good, rather than a presence of something bad. The origin of that doctrine is first attributed to St Augustine (late 4th century), and later reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (13th century). I find it hard to square this with Satan being an entity that is supposed to be actively evil. I have no idea what RC theologians make of this, although I am confident that their explanation would be extremely LONG. Make an explanation long enough and the chances are that the explainee will not raise any objections, out of sheer weariness and the fear that the explainer may launch into a further diatribe.

When I was in high school there was a boy who attended our school for a short while. He gained notoriety by telling people that he had seen the Devil. He had just woken up in the middle of the night and the Devil had been standing there at the foot of his bed. I remember that he had red eyes (the devil, not the boy), but can’t recall any other details being given. Still, the red eyes would be enough to narrow down the suspects fairly effectively if the police were to conduct a manhunt. A short conversation was had, twixt the boy and the devil. I don’t remember the topic but I do remember that it was surprisingly banal.

Did he really think he saw the devil, or did he just make up the story in order to gain attention and acceptance at a new school, as boys are wont to do? We’ll never know, because he left after being there only a couple of months. I hope it was made up, because such visions are often associated with mental illness and I wouldn’t wish for him to have suffered that.

Having meandered about all over the place in this essay (as usual) I feel I should lay my cards on the table and say that, although I think the devil is a marvellous literary figure that we couldn’t do without, I don’t believe in him any more. I hope that most other people don’t either, regardless of their religious or cultural associations, as belief in the devil seems to lead to black and white thinking that before you know it has medicine women being burned as witches and teenagers with schizophrenia being subjected to horrific exorcism rituals.

What I do believe in, at least in the middle of the night as I struggle out of bed to go and empty my bladder, is a frightful monster hiding under the bed with scaly claws that will grab my shins, pull me under the bed and then – I don’t know what then, but no doubt it will be horrific. But that’s more Doctor Who than Paradise Lost, and is the subject of another (not yet written) essay.

Now, having whinged shamelessly about the verbosity of both John Milton and of theologians, I had better stop here, lest I commit the very misdemeanor I have been moaning about.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2017

 


Thought Association

I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.

After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.

But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.

That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).

Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.

That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.

And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.

Thought association.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2017

Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.


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


Voldemort Dreams

Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.

There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.

They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.

Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.

There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.

What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.

I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.

A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.

I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).

Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.

I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?

Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.

But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.

Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2016

 

And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.

ii  Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!