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:
- Please keep an eye out for PSI sufferers, and try to be kind to them (and help them to get better); and
- 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.
Bondi Junction, October 2016
When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.
When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).
There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!
Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.
In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?’
But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.
And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.
How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.
One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.
But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).
Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.
Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:
‘Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’
No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.
He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:
Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?
HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.
Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!
HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?
Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.
One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.
But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.
In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.
Bondi Junction, February 2016
Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.
Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.
I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.
I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.
But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.
Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.
Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.
If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.
Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.
In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.
Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.
A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:
Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.
In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.
Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.
Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.
And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.
Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.
I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.
Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.
Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.
But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.
Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.
Bondi Junction, November 2015
I have writers’ block. It’s not that I can’t write anything, it’s that I can’t finish it.
I have at least a dozen essays ranging in degree of completion from a bare skeleton or a couple of paragraphs to three-quarters finished. I even have one that’s finished but just doesn’t seem quite right. It needs revision, but I can’t work out how to revise it. It seems it might be easier to throw it away and start again.
Each essay was started in a rush of enthusiasm. The words poured onto the page. But the torrent gradually slowed. In each case I finally realised I had written myself into a corner. I had raised too many questions, or bypassed issues that were too crucial. Or what had started out meaning to be a cool analysis had ended up being too passionately opinionated.
It seems to me that there are two polar opposites of how to approach writing.
One is to just write intuitively, whatever words come into one’s head, and see where it leads.
The other is to meticulously plan the structure, mapping out the points one wishes to make by a skeleton of headings and subheadings. Then fill in the detail.
With the latter, one can get good structure, but it sometimes lacks heart.
The former – the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach – has heart, but often ends up in a blind alley, with nowhere to go. Or it can end up lopsided, with 500 words spent on one viewpoint and only 100 on the alternative with which the essay seeks to contrast it. Does that matter? I don’t know, but it seems to.
You can tell from the third paragraph of this essay that most of my recent efforts have used the stream of consciousness approach. This one has too. Perhaps if I keep it short enough it won’t get lost.
I’m pretty sure the best approach is somewhere between those two poles. There needs to be some planning, but there also needs to be spontaneity. It is striking that balance that I find so difficult. Things always seem to want to lurch towards one or the other of the extremes. It can be quite dispiriting.
Am I being too self-critical? I read many, many essays and non-fiction works and most of them seem to me to be poorly written and in most cases far too verbose. Even with David Hume, whom I revere, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘what was the purpose of that paragraph? Haven’t you already made that point?’
Perhaps most essayists write from stream of consciousness, and just don’t worry much about whether they are being as clear, ordered and succinct as they would ideally wish.
But like many people, I am my own harshest critic. Perhaps the difference is that, if I am reading something written by someone else and find it is not grabbing me, I infer that it may be my lack of concentration that is the problem, rather than a lack of writing quality. But if it is something I wrote, then I am to blame, whether it’s poor reading or poor writing, so I may as well blame the writing, and I do.
Well then. I shall post this essay, as a heartfelt expression of my annoyance, and then stumble off to look at the jumble of my mixed-up writings to see if anything can be salvaged. There’s always the possibility that they could be of posthumous interest as what they call ‘fragments’. After all, Heraclitus is known only from his fragments, and some of Nietzsche’s and Kafka’s interesting ideas are in their fragments. I am not Heraclitus, nor Nietzsche nor Kafka, but maybe if some relation or associate of mine becomes extremely famous, my fragments might attract the interest of their biographers.
In the meantime, here is a fragment to create the illusion of momentum. Perhaps that will be sufficient, via some sort of placebo effect, to generate some genuine momentum that will save those poor languishing part-finished essays.
Bondi Junction, May 2014