Posts Tagged words


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!

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Back from … er … nowhere

I know. The blog has been silent for over a month. I offer only my stunningly original philosophy as explanation: I blog when I have something worthwhile to say, not because I have a blog. Ha!

It was vacation time last month and I was generally, languorously, indulging my latent laziness. That explains a lot doesn’t it? But there was work, too. Trying to keep junior in good humour and out of trouble, mostly. Anyone dare suggest that isn’t work? (I’m rolling up my sleeves …)

Midway during the vacation I attended a “do” on Intellectual Property Rights. One of those government-sponsored things for us government wallahs.  Now, in academia which is where I belong, these “do’s” are called workshops and/or seminars.  No, I’m not going to digress into IPR (this blog has a focus and all that). Suffice it to say it was informative and I came away more knowledgeable about patents, copyrights, international patent laws, etc., than I was.

I mention this only because I’m troubled by the word “workshop”. Should it have been called a seminar?

The two terms are used interchangeably in academia to mean a meeting where ideas and information are discussed and exchanged. However, in a workshop the emphasis is on skills, techniques, and problem-solving. And one expects to get hands-on training on those skills and techniques. A seminar, on the other hand, involves intense, advanced study of a subject by a small group of researchers. There’s clearly a difference between the two.

So when you go to a “workshop” expecting to learn skills and instead find yourself bombarded by speaker after speaker holding forth, monologue after monologue, on a subject, one is, shall we say, at a loss for words. 

I wonder if it’s because we don’t realize this difference that our academic programmes, whether we call them workshops, seminars, symposia or conferences, are boring, monologic, paper-reading sessions. And therefore sources of much amusement and derision.

Fixing a word down to exactly what it means and then finding that the meaning is at variance with what is intended, with usage, can be … well … detrimental to one’s health!  While in this vein, here are a couple names of shops I saw recently in my city:

  • Stay Teen: For a beauty parlour I’d say this is a singularly unimaginative name. For one thing, it would put older customers off. And, seriously, don’t they know all the unglamorous problems that go with the teens? Acne, pimples, unwanted hair, puppy fat …
  •  Book Sea: I suppose I know what the owner of this bookshop is trying to say, through this rather ambitious name, about the shop. But there’s something odd about this adjectival use of “book”. I mean, yes, we do say book club and book shop and book lovers and the like … and yet, book sea? Meaning, metaphorically, a sea of books, or vast numbers of books? It doesn’t sound right somehow.

Beats me why people would want to exaggerate so when trying to sell something. Nothing is as convincing as the truth.

A friend tells me I tend to read things too literally, being from a literature background. Sigh! They’re not the same thing at all. But there’s really no point in trying to tell him that, is there?

I wish I could tell him that literature does other things for me. It helps me imagine, and thereby understand, the other. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz puts it:

I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better businessperson or a better lover but even a better person.

(This is from his acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Award of Letters, 2007. Read the entire piece here.)


A new semester of teaching begins for me, bringing me a new group of eager young men and women, and, hopefully, much more grist for this (blog)mill!


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