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Monthly Archives: February 2013

honestly, let’s unpack this: it’s like, you know…very unique?

I am fascinated by (obsessed with?) slang, colloquialisms, jargon, argot, and of course language use and misuse in general. Perhaps most entertaining are slang and colloquialisms that pop up and become widespread in the space of a few years.

“Honestly…,” “Let’s unpack this,” and a few notable others have become more frequent (at least from my point of view) and I wanted to dissect them a bit and think about what could be behind them.

New terms or ways of communicating can be hard to see “appear” sometimes, since they enter everyday language incrementally, and the best part is that some of them may not be new at all, “new” defined here as “having popped up in the last 10 years”, but they may be new to me as they become common or even pervasive in the conversations I have and the information landscape that I inhabit.

There’s more than pure nerdish entertainment to this. For one thing, it can be used as a lens through which to look at society and culture, but more specifically at organizations and what makes them tick. Religions, in particular are an interesting subtype of organization since some of them maintain their high-level structures for hundreds or thousands of years. For example, Scientology’s obsession with redefining  language is notable in that they are at the extreme end of the spectrum combining both jargon and and repurposing of common language, which naturally affects how you communicate and therefore relate to, and to some degree how we perceive, reality.

Startups go through a similar (even if simultaneously more overt and less structured) process in this regard. Most of us have seen how companies have their own terminology for everything. In engineering, in particular, you could literally sit through an entire conversation about infrastructure between two engineers from the same company and never know what they’re talking about, while in marketing or sales they don’t so much invent terminology as repurpose it freely, leading to a overloading of commonly used terms that can some times create confusion (e.g. “Active users” or even “pageviews”).

I’m not saying that startups, tech companies, or even non-tech companies are cults (Apple’s perception as such notwithstanding..), but there’s some similarities that I think speak to a need of a group, no matter of what kind, to define itself as separate from everyone else and, of the mechanisms necessary for that to happen, language is one of the  easier starting points.

But back to what are more widely shared colloquialisms and/or slang, here’s a few personal favorites that I’ve observed have become more common in recent years, and some of my own musings on what’s behind them.

Some of these trigger “old man yells at cloud” syndrome in me, since (apparently) I have a hard time handling the cognitive dissonance, sheer nonsense, or just plain lack of meaning involved.

“Like, you know…” and the invisible question mark that follows

This one is fairly established, dating I think back to the mid-90s. And it hasn’t just endured, it has become so widespread and entrenched that it’s definitely worth mentioning.

It’s one of the most fascinating colloquialisms in my opinion. It’s a simile in which the structure that follows “like” is not explicit, but rather vaguely points to some idea that perhaps, maybe, hopefully, the other person shares in some indeterminate way in the statement we’re about to make, while expressing that we really don’t care too much one way or the other.

It is maddening to me to be in a conversation in which the other person constantly trails off, attaching “like, you know”s and question marks at the end of sentences. We are, apparently, not supposed to have conviction anymore, and language tinted with this construct communicates that clearly. It says: I have nothing invested in this statement.

All too often, in fact, “Like, you know…?” has no follow up at all and it just trails off, the question mark implicit in the inflection of our voice, the interrogative tone, the you know parenthetical. It’s filler, pretending that you’re saying something when you really aren’t, a statement without content, a commitment to nothing in particular that nevertheless creates the impression that we’re communicating. Whatever is said gets turned into a question, something to be challenged on the receiving end. But when the receiver also answers with similar lack of definition, then it’s just a bunch of words strung together, isn’t it? A charade: because, actually, we don’t want to have a real conversation.

Declarative language, straight up statement of beliefs, of facts, of what we know to be true even if it is subjective, has been appropriated by the extremes, the Glenn Becks of the world. The alternative, nuance and complexity of thought, are in everyone else often replaced by a quivering indecision.

The flip side of this indecision is how we pretend to counteract it with an earnest declaration: “Honestly…”

“Honestly”

This type of preface or clarification instantly triggers, at least for me, the thought that the rest of what the other person’s been saying has not been “honest.” Not “dishonest” necessarily, but the addition raises the level of whatever comes after over what came before. And, when it’s used constantly it just makes me question everything.

Aside from combining it with “like, you know…”, to give the appearance of weight while simultaneously reducing the importance of what we’re saying, “honestly” is also used in many other cases. Why are we suddenly using this modifier so frequently? Is it that in a world when The Onion‘s headlines can appear as serious as those in The New York Times we have suddenly decided that, by default, everything is suspect? Or is it perhaps that PR, marketing and advertising are so pervasive that we look at everything with skepticism and some degree of mistrust, requiring the additional emphasis of “honestly” to separate what we say from what we’re supposed to say? Maybe a bit of both. Ironically, advertising continues to be pretty effective. Instead of applying these filters to ads, we look at everything with suspicion.

“Let’s unpack this”

This one seems to have become more common in the last couple of years. I don’t know if it’s been traced back to its origins, but it seems to me that it’s a byproduct of technology –both explicitly and implicitly, partially around lack of trust, but also increased (real and perceived) complexity.

Explicitly: software, first, where so many things are “packaged” and have to be “unpacked” to look at them. More importantly, thanks to e-commerce, followed by a relatively new phenomenon of boxes everywhere. We all get packages at home or the office that have to be unpacked. Think back, pre-e-commerce, how common was it to get a package? For most people, not very. Now, unpacking is a frequent action in our daily lives, a common occurrence.

Implicitly: everything around us now has layers within layers, a Matryoshka doll of seemingly neverending complexity. The phrase “let’s take a look under the hood” used to be applicable beyond cars — the world generally had one level. You’d open the hood and there was the engine. Done. Now, “under the hood” is just the first of many layers, even in cars (batteries, microprocessors, software…). A phone is no longer just a phone, and you can even have a phone built into your car, nevermind connected to it. A car contains maps. The maps contain reviews. The reviews link to social media. And on and on it goes. The ongoing merging of cyberspace and meatspace often leads us down rabbit holes in everything we touch.

Which also relates to “Honestly” since “Unpacking” is often used for discussing statements by public officials, and even facts. The only way you would need to “unpack” a statement is if its true meaning, or different interpretations, were “packed” under the “wrapping” of its surface. Orwell’s doublespeak (or maybe n-speak?) ingrained to the degree that the default assumption becomes that there’s hidden meaning, or inherent obfuscation. Hence, “Honestly” may be functioning as a vaccine for “Unpacking” — something that communicates “Unpacking not required.”

“Very unique”

Once more, I chalk this one up as trying to counteract the lack of trust we have come to assume in what’s communicated. It is more commonly used by marketing types, but recently I’ve heard with alarming frequency in other contexts.

Something is either unique, or it isn’t. It can’t be “very unique,” or “incredibly unique.” Period. But I suppose that when words like “unique” have become overused, we start to add adjectives in the hopes of making it clear that, yes, this is unique, as opposed to all those other things that we say are unique even if they’re not.

This is the most egregious misuse of an adjective, but there are others. I typically use words like “beautiful,” “love,” “hate,” and others sparsely, because their weight is diminished by attaching them to everything. I like rain, in itself but also because I appreciate sunny days more when they’re juxtaposed with the alternative, and viceversa.

If everything is beautiful, if beautiful is the norm, then how do we talk about something that is special, that touches us beyond that? We start adding superlatives: “incredibly beautiful,” “profoundly beautiful” and so forth (“profound” is another overused term these days, now that I think about it). Until that becomes the way we refer to even the menu transition of an iPhone app, or some icon, or the color of a couch, at which point we are left with a situation in which our depiction of it leaves us little room to enjoy the occasional good thing, because we have done away with contrasts by turning everything into positive happy feelings.

Most of the time, nothing remarkable happens, our lives are routine, and that should be just fine. Also, a lot of things just suck. And that’s a good thing, because if they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to tell when they don’t.

On Borges and Languages, or, On rigor in translations

In the process of writing something else I wanted to use a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Del rigor en la ciencia. I ended up doing my own translation of it, and it seemed worthwhile to document why. (Note: I will use italics for Spanish words throughout the text, for clarity).

This short story (quite short actually, less than 130 words), was first collected in Historia universal de la infamia (“A universal history of infamy) and later in El Hacedor (“The Maker”). It is of the “recovered text” genre, supposedly dating to the year 1658.

The English translation quoted most frequently is by Andrew Hurley (Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998). Hurley translates the title as “On Exactitude in Science” and that’s where my disagreements with his version begin.

First, the word “Rigor” from the Spanish title is translated by Hurley as “Exactitude.” However, “Rigor” (which is spelled the same in English and Spanish) is more than just “Exactitude.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines rigor as “the quality of being extremely thorough and careful; severity or strictness; (rigors) harsh and demanding conditions,” which is roughly equivalent to the definition of the Spanish word by the Real Academia Española (although the Spanish word includes other meanings that are not exactly the same, but closely related to the ones used by the OED).

Second, the word “Exactitude” exists in Spanish: “Exactitud.” Borges would have used it if that’s what he wanted to convey.  The structure “Rigor en…” is frequently used in Spanish, and in this case it actually conveys accurately the Latin cultural perception of Science as being not just exact but also strict, even severe, a perception that is far more muted, if at all present, in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The argument using “Exactitude” could be that “rigor in science” would be a somewhat archaic phrasing, but this is actually something that works to our advantage given the supposed origin of the text in the 17th century.

Third, Hurley also capitalizes the words “Exactitude” and “Science” in the title, whereas the original Spanish text does not. This matters because in this particular story Borges actually turned several words into their “proper” form (e.g. Nouns into Proper Nouns), using the effect of capitalization to expand the importance of those words. Critically, this use of capitalization places the text in a historical context — use of capitalization was not generally properly codified prior to the 18th century in either English or Spanish (for just one example of archaic use of capitalization in english, see George Washington’s “Rules of Civility,” starting with Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”)

Within the text, other differences in tone and depth of meaning become visible:

Spanish Original: “Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados […]”

Hurley’s translation: “In time, those Unconscionable Maps […]”

My translation: “In time, these Excessive Maps […]”

To start, “estos Mapas” is “these Maps,” not “those Maps.” While I can see why Hurley would choose “those” here, I have no doubt that Borges would have used “esos” or “aquellos” if his intention was to say “those”. Then there’s the translation of “Desmesurados” as “Unconscionable” which on one hand captures some of the feeling of the Spanish word but not all. Lacking context “Desmesurados”  means “Without Measure,” but in this context I’d actually say that “Unconscionably Excessive” or “Unmeasurably Excessive” is probably the most accurate reflection what Borges was going for. I ended up using only “Excessive,” exchanging brevity for lack of verve and depth. 

Another example can be found in the following partial sentence:

Spanish Original: “Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil […]”

Hurley’s translation: “The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless […]”

My translation: “Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless […]”

Hurley here introduces another proper noun (“Forebears”) which isn’t even included in the original, and demotes “Following,” by reversing the capitalization of the word. In the process he affects, in my view, the weight implied by “Generaciones Siguientes” and not in a good way (he makes this mistake in the opposite direction with the word “Relic” in the last sentence).

Hurley translates “entendieron” as “saw” but I think there’s no reason to avoid the direct translation “understood” since it maintains the implication of understanding not just as the cognitive process but also as seeing or realizing something. Hurley’s addition of a comma before “saw” also affects the pace of the sentence for no good reason.

He also changes “Adictas” (“Addicted”) to a much more mellow “not so fond of” from the original, much harsher implication of addiction (with a capital “A” no less!). If we recontextualize the change into a more common setting we can see the damage this causes to the text. Compare “Joe was less Addicted to heroin after that” to “Joe was not so fond of heroin after that.”

I did have some qualms about using “dilated Map” here instead of Hurley’s “vast Map” but once more I defer to Borges on this. Using “dilated” for a map (“ese dilatado Mapa”) is pure literary license and not the way in which you’d ascribe vastness to a map either in English or in Spanish, so there’s really no reason not to use the English word (“dilated”) that is the exact translation of the Spanish text to maintain the mental image that Borges was going for.

There are other specific changes I made, but need to work on other things. So, without further ado, here are the original, my translation, and Hurley’s for comparison.

Spanish Original

“Del rigor en la ciencia”, by Jorge Luis Borges

. . . En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el Mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el Mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados no satisficieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el Tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y los Inviernos. En los Desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

My English Translation

On rigor in science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Excessive Maps did not satisfy and the Schools of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure broken Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

Andrew Hurley’s English Translation, in Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998.

On Exactitude in Science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

– Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658

the pliability of our perception of time

Me: Happy New Year!

World: It’s February.

Me: Says you.

World: Says me, the Gregorian Calendar and over six other billion on this planet. I’d add “Q.E.D.” but it seems redundant.

Me: Do I get points for trying?

World: Not really, no.

Me: Fine. I accept your apology.

World: I didn’t apologize.

Me: I know you are, but what am I?

World: I’d rather not say.

Me: I win!

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