I gotta use words when I talk to you
But if you understand or if you don’t
that’s nothing to me and nothing to you.

(- Sweeney Agonistes. T.S. Eliot.)

Being in the business of words myself, I’m constantly forced to think about them. About what they can and cannot do.

I was in a meeting some days ago, chaired by a Very Important Person. Meetings and committees are professional hazards I’ve learned to live with. Left to myself, I’d have liked to go to work just to teach, be available for student consultation, and visit the library. But no. As one of my senior colleagues keeps telling me, it’s a package deal. I’ve actually served on a committee that was set up to form another committee. As Pintersque as that.

But I digress.

So VIP was holding forth and I was squirming, not just because meetings have that effect on me, but also because said VIP kept referring to the Social Sciences and Humanities as ‘non-Sciences’. Finally, when I got a chance to speak, I jumped up and pointed out that we’re not defined by what we’re not, so could we please be called the Humanities? VIP flinched and apologized, but the triumph was short-lived. VIP continued: “See, it’s about the words we have. You cannot call the Sciences ‘non-Humanities’, right?” I gasped and spluttered, “Why not?” Too late. I was already out of VIP’s radar, radar that clearly couldn’t catch irony. I normally take a light view of such ignorance. Forgive them for they know not what they say. But VIPs are influential people. Their words carry weight, get set in stone.

There is ignorance and there is ignorance. When I first took my kid to my office, he saw the ‘School of Humanities’ board near the entrance to the School building and read the word ‘Humanities’ as “Human-ties”. My colleagues were thrilled to bits. “Such an apt misreading!” they cooed. And I hadn’t the heart to correct him.

Words are easily enough corrected. What do you do about the thought behind them?

Have a great 2009, everyone!



  1. Pooja said

    That’s the thing – words reflect our perceptions. That said, plenty of people might, for sake of form, adopt politically correct speech but will do nothing to address their inner prejudices.

    “…we’re not defined by what we’re not..” – A superior sentiment, SS. I ‘ll never forget this one.

  2. Prasanth said

    Hmm..at least we can be thankful that people like you still sit on committees. Else what would be the possibilities of irony getting a hearing on such auspicious occasions!

    May your crusade continue..and as for your son, better let him be. Some lessons are better learned solo and late.


  3. Quirky Indian said

    Surely you didn’t expect a non-ordinary-person (or non-mere-mortal, if you wish!) to know any better? Tsk tsk!


    Quirky Indian

  4. Pooja: Welcome back! And thanks for the kind words.

    Prasanth: Crusade. Hmmm. You make me sound quixotic!

    QI: 🙂

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