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Clockwork Philosophy

A Crisis of (Creative) Faith

My dear and long suffering reader, recently I’ve been experiencing something akin to a “crisis of faith.”

As you may or may not have noticed, the world-wide-inter-web-net of late has been largely lacking in my singular form of linguistic legerdemain. While I’ve wanted to write prodigiously, I’ve been experiencing a real sense of “stuckness” when it comes to getting the ideas to flow.

It’s certainly not fear that stays my hand. Any trepidation to inflict my verba enim on an otherwise innocent and unsuspecting public has long since been disregarded. I honestly believe that the cause of this impasse is the belief that my efforts will bring no value to those unlucky enough to have been intellectually assaulted by my senseless scribbles.

As I said, a crisis of faith.

You see kids, for me, “value” is far more than a buzzword adored by the marketing intelligentsia, Saint Don of Draper and Our Lady of Perpetual Brand Awareness. It’s the reason I do what I do.

The interwebz are replete with exemplars of vacuous drivel, pseudo-intellectual rubbish, long on loquaciousness but short on substance.

Note: It’s not lost on me that some may believe that my work falls into just such a category. Just so. I defer to your worldly judgement on such matters while simultaneously remaining hopeful that such a reality be false. One can dream.

I’ve always attempted to infuse as much value as I possibly can into my work. My language may seem odd, esoteric and even frustratingly impenetrable at times, but I assure you that my point is not to confuse or to annoy. The effusiveness of my language comes from a deep love and – if I may employ a horribly overused term – passion for words.

Language is like a tapestry, and I consider it a crime to not avail oneself of every thread in that tapestry. It may ask a little more of the reader, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. For too long we’ve been fed a diet of vacuous, dumbed down phraseology and irrelevant logorrhea.

To better illustrate my point, allow me to quote from an past essay of mine:

“And therein lies the difference, my dear and long suffering reader, between the way I write and the empty and roundabout twaddle we’re forced to endure on a daily basis: My words, while occasionally obscure, actually mean something. Quite often the vacuous effluvia spewed by politicians or corporate drones is designed to distract or deceive the audience. It’s most often used to make the speaker appear more intelligent, or to “answer” a question without actually answering it.

In my case, some may believe that I use words such as “effluvia” to impress my readers, but I assure you that is not the case. As I’ve already stated, I love words and I believe we do ourselves disservice when we limit our usage to such a small subset, the venerable Strunk and White be damned.

As a marketing copywriter, I often struggle with keeping things “simple” in the interests of efficiency. Indeed, the advertising industry relies on something called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level to ensure that the language being used is accessible to the largest audience possible. Ideally, the reading level of most marketing materials should score between 80-90 on the measurement scale, which corresponds to a Grade 6 reading level. The lower the score, the more difficult a piece of writing is to read.

In case you’re wondering – and being creatures of curiosity and perspicacity you most assuredly are – this essay scored 51.3 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, or the equivalent of a Grade 11 reading level.

I’d like to think that readers like yourself, when encountering an unusual word, will be inspired to look it up and thereby educate yourselves, as I often do. I believe that people are much more intelligent than they are given credit for, and that much of the problem with people not wanting to read online is in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Good lord on a tin bicycle I must have been in quite a mood when I wrote that. Well, sententious and preposterously self-important as it may be, the point stands.

What was my point? I’ve strayed somewhat from the gravimen of my text it seems. Ah well, one doesn’t necessarily need a destination to enjoy a journey and all that. However, your time is valuable and I’ve used up enough of it. Let us return to our purpose.

In much the same way that I once wrote an 800-word essay on the reasons I was unable to write an 800-word essay, this lovely ramble through the wilderness of language is a way to try and break through the self-imposed creative block that had resulted in my “crisis of faith.”

Self-imposed? Oh yes dear reader, invariably such barriers are inflicted by one’s own beliefs, not by outside forces. We look outside ourselves for validation and praise to try and bolster our spirits, when in reality the solution can only be found within.

This essay is my way of trying to push past my creative block, of exposing my concerns about providing value to the harsh light of day and allowing it to wither away. Limiting beliefs thrive in the dark after all.

Crisis averted? One can dream dear reader. One can dream.

Categories
Essays

And Now for a Word…

“Flammable, inflammable… and non-inflammable. What are there three? Don’t you think two words ought to be able to handle that idea? I mean either the thing flams or it doesn’t flam…”

The late George Carlin, providing his take on the surprising, confusing, delightful and frustrating mélange that is the English language.

(Eagle-eyed readers will note the irony of using a French word to describe the English language. As you will see… it’s actually quite apropos.)

Ladies, gentlemen and assorted lifeforms, the English language is certainly an odd beast n’est-ce pas? It’s not something we think about much, but for those learning English for the first time, it must seem like the creators of our modern tongue had been drunk when they created some of the words and grammar “rules” that codify our communication.

Just to illustrate what I mean, we’re talking about a language where this is a grammatically correct sentence:

“Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo.”

Grammarians must be mad as a brush, surely.

Still stumped in that one? Unravelling the linguistic legerdemain in this sentence relies on the understanding the three forms of the word buffalo: an animal, a city in new York, and a verb in English, meaning to trick or fool someone. Here it is in a clearer form:

“New York bison [that are] tricked [by other] New York bison [also themselves] trick [other] New York bison.”

Now I realize a sentence like this is not really very common – I only use it once or twice a week myself – but imagine someone learning English for the first time coming across this idiomatic idiocy? Harrowing.

It’s not just oddball sentences involving furry quadrupeds that trip people up. Even our everyday words, phrases and sentences can become minefields of confusion. Take this gem for example:

“We don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t look up what we don’t know when we don’t know what to look up.”

You see what I mean… or perhaps you don’t, and that really is the point. The language is complex, unintuitive, completely mad, and filled with nonsensical constructions just like that.

Alright, now let’s look at another example, this time illustrating our apparent inability to decide on a single pronunciation:

“A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”

This sentence is made possible by the nine different pronunciations of the letter group “OUGH.” Nine! Some grammarians point to this as an example of tremendous versatility of the letter group, but it looks more like someone missed a memo… or several of them.

So how, you may ask, did English get this way? How did we get to a place where you can be disgruntled but never gruntled? Overwhelmed, underwhelmed, but never just… whelmed?

I’ve always imagined the English language to be a lot like the country which I call home and that I love with every fibre of my being – the True North Strong and Free(zing) – Canadia-land.

Like Canada, the English language is amazingly diverse, capable of soaring heights of intellect and achievement and devastating lows of depravity. It’s complex, resistant to easy labelling and of course, daffy to the eyebrows. Much like Canada’s diverse ethnic tapestry, English is filled with words and phrases we’ve borrowed from other languages and cultures.

For example, you probably know that attaché, (the person not the briefcase) ballet, silhouette and gaffe all come to us from French, but did you know that words such as bungalow, khaki, pyjama and (heaven help us) guru are in fact Indian in origin?

Algebra, zero, mattress and sofa come to us from the Arabic language. The nation of China has gifted us with feng shui, kung fu, silk and surprisingly, ketchup. Fans of The Walking Dead will appreciate words such as zombie, cola, banana and jamboree, all of which hail from the African continent. (One wonders what an “African banana cola zombie jamboree” would look like – great fun I should think.)

From Spain we get cigar, guerrilla, hurricane and vanilla. Artisan, balcony, cartoon and replica come to us from Italy. The Dutch (bless them) bring us booze, cookie, cruise and somewhat oddly, yankee.

And so on, ad nauseam. English truly is a kind of stew – a word derived from the French étuver – a mishmash of languages from around the world.

Now I know you dear reader. You’re sitting back, sipping on a mocha-latte-frappa-hoopa-al-pacino and shaking your head wondering what my point could possibly be.

Language is one of our most powerful tools for engaging and connecting with other human-shaped humans. While you certainly don’t need to access the full range of philological funny-business that makes up the language – the Oxford English Dictionary currently lists 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 so-called “obsolete” words – finding the right combination that can draw a through-line between two humans is a powerful thing indeed.

Explore the full range of the wonderful miasma that is the English language. Don’t be afraid to dip into the pot of unusual words to make your point. People are far smarter, and far more curious, than we’re led to believe. Strunk and White be damned.

You need not be confined to the same small bucket of words that everyone else uses. Be creative. Be bold. Be unique.

Categories
Essays

Rhymes with Orange

#Create365 – January 6, 2019

My dear reader, allow me to offer up a query for your consideration:

What rhymes with orange?

You may think that to be a silly question. Of course, nothing rhymes with orange right? It’s one of a small subset of English words which have no rhyme. Others include:

  • Silver
  • Purple
  • Month
  • Ninth
  • Pint
  • Wolf
  • Opus
  • Dangerous
  • Marathon
  • Discombobulate

Nothing remarkable there you may think – simply an interesting bit of trivia for grammar wonks or an annoyance for songwriters.

However “orange” and it’s no-rhyming brethren offer an ideal analogy for explaining the concept of false suppositions or limiting assumptions.

Let’s return to our earlier example. I asked you what rhymes with orange. The obvious answer, again, is “nothing.”

But what if I throw a spanner into the works?

What if I countered with the following: “It depends on how you pronounce it.”

“What nonsense,” I hear you sputter, despite the fact that you’re typing. “Obviously I know how to pronounce ‘orange.’ Everyone knows how to pronounce it!”

Quite so dear reader, but consider, just for a moment, that you’ve been saying it wrong all this time. Unlikely I grant you, but consider the possibility.

Perhaps the idea is better presented this way: How do you know you’re pronouncing it correctly?

You may respond that you were taught to pronounce it that way, and everyone you’ve ever met has said it that way. Fair enough, but go deeper. What makes you so certain of your pronunciation?

It’s because you’ve built an assumption. One based on evidence to be sure, but an assumption nevertheless.

You assume that you were taught correctly.

You assume that everyone can’t be wrong.

Let me give you another example and then I promise I’ll reveal how all of this is relevant.

Who decided that women wear skirts and men do not?

If I asked a man to wear a skirt, odds are he would say no, and probably act as if I were mad for even asking such a question. However, such an idea wasn’t brought down from on high. It’s not coded into the fabric of the universe. It’s just a societal norm that someone, somewhere decided on, and we all began following.

My dear and long suffering reader, you’ve been so patient. Allow me to reward that patience with the point I’m trying to make.

I’ve been attempting to show how easily we make assumptions about ourselves and our world. We accept things as fact – or at least as “being right” – often with little to no evidence, and even without realizing we’re doing it.

If it’s that easy to make those assumptions, then how easy is it for us to fall into limiting patterns of belief?

How easy is it to believe that we’re not worthy of love?

How easy is it to believe that we must do what we’re told, and never venture beyond another’s vision?

Perhaps it’s time we looked more closely at what we believe and why we believe it.

It may be true that nothing rhymes with “orange.”

Perhaps it’s time we created a word that did.

Categories
Essays

The Eyes Have It

#Create365 – January 4, 2019

I have to admit, I have a thing for eyes.

Now relax dear reader, this isn’t some weird serial killer body part fixation. I just find the eyes to be often the most striking part of a person.

They’re the first thing I notice when I meet someone, though it must be said that many people do not believe me when I tell them this. Considering the sometimes obsessive and always-annoying male fixation with other… areas of the female body – namely those of the gluteal and mammary variety – I can understand the skepticism.

However, I speak with total sincerity when I say that I am invariably drawn to the eyes of a person when I meet them.

Indeed, when I met my late fiancée Raven, they were the second thing I noticed. I say second because at 6 foot 3 inches and 250 pounds of muscle, she was… rather difficult to miss. Her eyes were the deepest shade of green I had ever seen. In fact they were so green, she was constantly being accused of wearing coloured contacts.

While it may seem novel at first, evidence shows that I am not alone in this fascination for a being’s ocular apparatus.

Our literature is replete with references to eyes. Don’t believe me? With just a cursory amount of research, I was able to dig up over a hundred different phrases used in our everyday parlance, all surrounding the eyes.

To provide some examples:

We can be up to one’s eyeballs with work.

When wronged, we sometimes demand an eye for an eye.

An easy task can be done with one’s eyes closed.

It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

One might tell someone that they are easy on the eyes, or even that they are eye candy, though in the blink of an eye one could end up with a black eye.

The apple of my eye, keep one’s eyes peeled, eyes are bigger than one’s stomach and scales falling from one’s eyes makes me think that the creator(s) of these phrases have a knowledge of human physiology that can charitably be described as… thin.

When imagining something, we say that we can see it in our mind’s eye.

People can be in the public eye. (Though one hopes the public has more than one.)

If we meet someone new we might say that we caught someone’s eye, which, it must be said, is quite disturbing.

A mysterious person may be described as more than meets the eye. (Note: Anyone over a certain age is incapable of reading that phrase in anything but a robot voice.)

When we wish someone to be forthright with us, we demand that they look us in the eye. (Was there another option? The spleen perhaps? The elbow?)

There are also times when one might be tempted to give someone the stink eye, though… the less said about that, the better methinks.

We have jaundiced eyes and red eyes, roving eyes and bedroom eyes. There are big eyes, evil eyes, naked eyes and private eyes. Hell, there are even eyes in the sky!

The obsession with all things optical is not limited to humans. Animals often appear in these phrases as well, from those with eyes like a hawk, or eagle-eyes, to the poor unfortunate soul with raccoon eyes, or the always lamented snake eyes. Is this the end of the eye references? In a pig’s eye!

Waxing philosophical for a moment, we’re all familiar with the idea that the eyes are the windows of the soul. I’d have to agree, though it does make one wonder where “the basement door of the soul” is located. Upon further reflection, it’s probably a query best left unanswered.

Ladies and gentlebeings, I could go on like this for days without batting an eye, drawing up a list of recondite references and obscure idioms as far as the eye can see, but I have a feeling that before long, you’d be ready to roll your eyes and turn a blind eye to such nonsense. After all, it’s all fun and games until someone loses and eye. Then it’s a sport.

The importance we place upon the eyes is not an accident, nor is it incidental. The eyes truly are windows to the soul. They reveal a great deal when we take the time to study them closely.

Within a person’s eyes you can truly see love, hate, fear, courage and even the spark of life. Those who have been unfortunate enough to have witnessed the death of another have often spoken of a dimming of the eyes as the end comes. The change is so subtle that it barely registers on a conscious level, but the effect is immediate.

The light of life has faded, the brief candle extinguished.

The eyes tell us so much, and yet we focus ours on everything but the eye’s of another person, preferring the artificial optics of a mobile device or computer screen.

Raven was a very quiet person and not terribly demonstrative as a rule. However when we were together, I could read her every mood, and almost her thoughts, just from her eyes. We could have entire conversations across a room, just with our eyes. It became a fun game for us to play when we were out with friends. From those green jewels I could see the depths of love she felt for me, for her family, and her friends. I could see the pain that filled her heart whenever she saw suffering or tragedy. More than once I found myself moved to tears by what I saw in those eyes.

Dear reader, forgive me for suddenly turning serious on you, but I would ask a favour if I may be so bold:

When you spend time with the special people in your life, particularly if you’ve been blessed with a partner-in-love, take the time to study their eyes. See what they reveal about their moods and their feelings. Make a game out of it, trying to guess what the other is thinking, just from their eyes.

You might just discover a special kind of magic, right before your eyes.