Clichés

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. […] Clichés are detrimental in so far as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

~ Alain De Botton

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Elusive of casual definition

We feel something, and reach out for the nearest phrase or hum with which to communicate, but which fails to do justice to what has induced us to do so. We hear Beethoven’s Ninth and hum poum, poum, poum, we see the pyramids at Giza and go, “that’s nice.” These sounds are asked to account for an experience, but their poverty prevents either us or our interlocutors from really understanding what we have lived through. We stay on the outside of our impressions, as if staring at them through a frosted window, superficially related to them, yet estranged from whatever has eluded casual definition.

~ Alain De Botton

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Utterance is magic

This is why utterance is magic. Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.

~ Ursula K. Le Guin

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whup

For millennia, we have considered language — the magic-box of words — the hallmark of our species. Only in the last blink of evolutionary time have we begun to override our self-referential nature and consider the possibility that other types of channels might carry the magical energy of creatures telling each other what it is like to be alive, in the here and now of a shared reality.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/22/cetacean-communication/

It never ceases to amaze me how my brain—I’d write “our brains” but I can only hope yours works at least slightly like mine does—finds salience in the chaos of everyday life. I found Popova’s short piece a couple of weeks ago, and more recently saw a special about humpback whales; the whales that save humanity in a Star Trek movie, if you recall.

In the documentary, one scientist is trying to understand exactly how Humpbacks use sound as language. She’s literally hoping her research enables the beginning of a conversation, (between humans and whales.) And she found this sound, she calls a “whup.” It seems that each humpback’s “whup” is unique the way our voices are said to be unique. So she composed a “whup”… and supposed it was how they say, “hey what’s up”. Seriously, it even sounds like a mumbled, “wassup.” Her question was, if whales say “whup” to announce themselves, what happens if I say “whup”?

Turns out, they say “whup” in response.

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Words matter

But it isn’t just institutions that are guilty of enervating the gems of our language.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/habits/143606/

A simple piece that makes a clear statement. I find that the less I talk, (and the less I write—for example, by not posting at all on any “social” media,) the less I have the urge to abuse words. So much, maybe even all(?), of my overwrought language was driven by desperate grasping to get people to like me. These days? The grasping is certainly no longer desperate, and my communication has vastly improved because of it.

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The more we know to ask

As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

~ Marcelo Gleiser

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It feels as if everything I know is fractal! Things are complicated by the fact that everything I discover, read, and learn creates a network of connections in my knowledge. I’m always trying to get enough perspective to see where that network is inbred; I’m always looking for ways to break out of my knowledge bubble. But sometimes, the knowledge bubble can be used to make manageable a task that would otherwise be impossibly large.

Consider the writings of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger, or most often just written as Seneca. Even just his series of letters to a student make for a 500 page tome. Worse, there are notes, references and multiple very different translations into English. As an example of the complexity, consider these translations of a small excerpt from letter 42. (There are 124 letters plus some additional fragments.)

So, concerning the things we pursue, and for which we vigorously exert ourselves, we owe this consideration—either there is nothing useful in them, or most aren’t useful. Some of them are superfluous, while others aren’t worth that much. But we don’t discern this and see them as free, when they cost us dearly.

~ Holiday and Hanselman from, The Daily Stoic, p75.

If I’m correctly understanding their notes, that’s their translation from the original Greek and Latin texts. I find this translation frequently on the Internet, sometimes crediting those authors/that book, and sometimes crediting, Seneca, Moral Letters, 42.6.

Next, this is from Richard Mott Gummere. My limited digging suggests his original work was published in 1917. I’m guessing it went out of copyright in 2017, because it’s pretty easy to find it entirely republished. (Search for “Seneca Richard Mott Gummere”.) The copy I have is a crappy version from Barnes and Noble. (It’s as if they printed the book at 50% oppactiy.) Gummere titled letter 42, “On Values.” (Seneca did not title them, he simply wrote letter after letter after letter to his student.)

Therefore, with regard to the objects which we pursue, and for which we strive with great effort, we should note this truth; either there is nothing desirable in them, or the undesirable is preponderant. Some objects are superfluous; others are not worth the price we pay for them. But we do not see this clearly, and we regard things as free gifts when they really cost us very dear.

~ Seneca, 42.6, translated by Richard Mott Gummere

Finally, here’s the rendering from a very new publication from Chicago Press, which—again if I’m interpreting things correctly—takes as its primary sources translations from 9 different authors, (including Gummere,) published between 1914 and 2010. The same section is presented with letter 42 titled in the Table of Contents as, “Good People are Rare.” (But the letters in the body of the text are not presented with their titles—recall, Seneca didn’t title them.) Interestingly, I cannot find the following text anywhere on the Internet, the book only having been published in 2015 may be the reason.

This indeed is a point we should keep in view. Those things we compete for—the things to which we devote so much effort—offer us either no advantage, or greater disadvantage. Some are superfluities; others are not worth the trouble, but we don’t realize it. We think things come for free, when in fact their price is very steep.

~ Seneca, 42.6, and translated by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long

As the length of this blog post attests: What starts simply as, “I’d like to read some of Seneca’s writing,” quickly gets complicated. Frankly, it gets impossibly complicated. Impossible as in: Never mind, I don’t have time for this. But I do want to read some of Seneca’s writing. (I have already read many of his letters.)

So my current plan is to use my collection of Seneca quotes to choose which letters to read again and more thoroughly. Thanks to the Internet, I can find the source letter given a snippette of text. Then I can enjoy the letter using my exquisite University of Chicago Press translation, which is magnificently annotated.

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Refuge for cowards

We all have so much power that we don’t use. And I think it’s because of cynicism, which is a toxic spiritual state. Cynicism is a refuge for cowards.

~ Cory Booker

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I’m not sure what to think about the “spiritual” bit. I’d need to hear Booker explain what he means by that. This week, it seems, I’m on a language bender. And here’s something that really freakin’ matters

Does Booker mean “Cynicism”, as in the proper noun, the state of being a Cynic…

For the [ancient] Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, and fame, and even flouting conventions openly and derisively in public. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.

~ Wikipedia from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy)

…which isn’t my cup of tea, but doesn’t sound that bad. Or does Booker mean the contemporary adjective “cynicism”, simply capitalized because it’s starting a sentence…

Cynicism is an attitude characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives. A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment.

~ Wikipedia from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(contemporary)

…also not my preferred cup of tea, although I do sometimes partake.

When I first read that quote I wondered if he was referring to Cynicism, before deciding he clearly meant cynicism. I’d wager you read that quote and didn’t wonder at any time which he meant. (I’m not criticizing, only pointing at the marvelous process of understanding language.) My question for myself today is:

While I see the nuance around that word in this quote, where am I not seeing nuance that I should be?

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Deception

Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.

~ Niccolò Machiavelli

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I love language. Is Machiavelli suggesting less total violence, or more total deception? Or does it suggest that any amount of violence and deception, (including even, more violence than deception,) is fine, so long as you consider deception as your preferred method? Wait. What is the purpose of the word “attempt”? Is it okay to succeed by force, regardless of the possibility of succeeding using deception? Wait, no it’s worse than that even: “Never attempt to win … can be won …” — Is it okay if my aim is simply to sow chaos, without actually attempting to win via either method? Or, what if I attempt to win through some other means, (via kindness or merit or nimble maneuvering or bribery perhaps)?

But I do so love language.

Because despite all those perfectly logical nits that can be picked, it’s a brilliant sentence—even translated into English—packing insight and wisdom which we all grasp instantly and intuitively.

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Language

It’s incredible—meaning not credible, not something one would think one should take as true—that we can push air through a tube, finely modulate tension of some fibrous bands attached to flaps, manipulate the shape of a bunch of things it seems were designed for eating . . . and presto! some idea appears in your mind, generally, in the way I intended. It’s incredible but so blasé, right?

And it’s not even incredible, at this point, that the whole “process” has different “languages,” with dialects, jargon and local slang. No. That’s all yawns-ville.

It’s not even interesting that I can smashcrastically make up “words” and it still works. The right idea still appears in your head. And a word can have multiple meanings. Does it have the same several meanings in another language? Meh, interesting, but not brain melting.

What explodes my noodle every time is the thought of homonyms. Words in one language that sound the same that have different meanings. To. Too. Two. Homonyms! …why aren’t those words also homonyms in another language? (‘au’ or is it ‘a’? …and ‘deux’?) Are there in fact any homonyms in one language that are also homonyms in another language? If so, or if not, does that tell us anything about language itself? …or about the origins of language? …or about the common ancestry of those particular languages, or about those particular words? …or . . .

yeah no sorry wat? Mrs. Peters just always thought I wasn’t paying attention in French class.

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