Sunday, October 02, 2005


Dear Reader,

Samuel Clemens wrote "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning" (George Bainton, The Art of Authorship, pp. 87-88 (1890), which I have not yet read).

Our dear Mr. Clemens was writing about word choice, but it applies equally well to names and titles.

In part it is a matter of personal respect. My name is Frederick Douglas Saling Marshall. My friends, family, and coworkers call me Rick, or by private nicknames. Everyone else can call me Mr. Marshall. If that seems stilted, it is because we have become a rude culture that mistakes lack of formality for genuine friendliness. Intimacy without invitation is at best false, at worst it is a cousin of sex without informed consent. When a solicitor calls asking to speak with Fred, or Freddie, I know I am dealing with an organization that wants my resources but cannot be bothered to even know from whom they want them; I am just meat to them, or money, or time--less than human. To show respect is the first step in any legitimate human communication.

In part, recognizing that most people come from other cultures and speak or write in other languages is a matter of cultural respect, essential to avoid ethnocentrism, jingoism, and false forms of patriotism such as fascism. English is but one of thousands of human languages. To pretend that the English translation of a book's title or text is that book is to promote the falsehood that all worthy things take place in our language, in our culture. We must be citizens of the world and understand the true diversity of human experience, if we are to be civilized adults.

In part, calling things by their true names is a matter of excellence. The master of any art discriminates between details that matter and those that do not, and does justice to the things that matter. If someone cannot be bothered to get a name right, what else can they not be bothered to get right? It is not only worrisome, it is often an accurate predictor of other sloppy habits.

In part it is a matter of clarity. We live in crowded times, in a crowded world, and failure to properly identify our subjects breeds confusion. This is especially true with human names.

Above all, though, proper naming is a matter of comprehension. The lightning-bug is not the lightning. Nor is lightening. Our readers are probably not psychic, and cannot know what we meant, only what we wrote. Even our own thoughts are altered by our choice of language, and if we use the wrong names we will unconsciously respond to our erroneous label rather than our intended meaning. The human mind is not an organ for detecting the truth but for building patterns and associations, and it will work with whatever material it is given, however false or misleading. The computer science expression GIGO applies: Garbage in, garbage out. Conversely, the work required to clarify what we are trying to say to get the names right can reveal new information that makes us rethink what we were about to say, can teach us crucial new information that prevents us from believing or spreading misinformation.

So, a few examples:

As a child, I did not see Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope; I saw Star Wars; a later reedit was given the former title. Lucas himself created both films, but the later reedit has new special effects superimposed throughout the film.

Dario Argento (DAH-rio ar-JEN-toe; see postpostscript) did not direct Deep Red nor even The Hatchet Murders; he directed Profundo rosso (pro-FUN-doe ROSS-oh). The Hatchet Murders is a retitling of Profundo rosso after distributors sliced out huge chunks of the film's dialog, story, and character development. Argento fans consider it an abomination.

Niccolò Machiavelli (nick-CO-lah mah-kyah-VELL-lee) did not write The Prince; he wrote Il Principe (ill prin-CHEE-pay). Machiavelli was Italian and wrote in Italian, which I cannot yet read. I have read an English translation of Il Principe called The Prince, but I have never read Il Principe itself. The difference is more important than most people realize, because translations are imprecise. A translation is the result of a different author rewriting the entire work using different words from a different language; meanings are always changed, no matter how careful the translator is. For example, prince in English can mean various things, such as a cute little boy who will grow up to be king, or a sexy and available young nobleman; in Machiavelli's time, principe, may have meant prince in the sense of leader, like boss or lord.

The computer system I work on, VistA, is not written in the MUMPS programming language, nor in Caché, nor in M; it is written in Standard MUMPS (except a few lines scattered among fifteen routines), also called Standard M, specifically the 1995 standard. VistA cannot run on older versions of Standard MUMPS (such as the 1990 standard), nor on versions that do not comply with the 1995 standard (such as M3 from Patterson, Gray & Associates).

The Western Red-cedar, Thuja plicata (THOO-ya plic-AY-ta), is not a cedar; it is a thuja, a member of the Cypress family, which makes it a cousin of cedars. The Alaska-cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis (cam-ee-SIP-ah-riss noot-kah-TEN-sis), also called the Yellow-cedar, is also not a cedar, nor is it a thuja; it is a dwarf cypress, another cedar cousin. Nor is the Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii (soo-doe-TSOO-gah men-ZEE-see-eye), a fir; it is a false hemlock (an inappropriately negative but less misleading name), a member of the Pine family, making it a cousin of the firs, but only a very distant relative of cedars, thujas, and dwarf cypresses. These are three of the most important trees in my homeland. Names can be misleading.

I speak the American dialect of the English language, with western or standard pronunciation, a level of precision in the name of my language that often does not matter but sometimes does. For example, the color (not colour; I am not English or Canadian) of the sweatpants I am wearing is gray (not grey). Most people do not realize that spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary change in English depending on which dialect you are speaking. Even fewer realize there are formal styles in English, and the rules change further depending on which style you are using. I am trying to use Chicago style, detailed in The Chicago Manual of Style --though I am a novice and so make many mistakes--but newspaper writers use AP style, and there are others. If you do not know the name of your style, dialect, and language, you probably do not know the rules either, nor why they matter, nor when you may or should bend or break those rules to improve your communication.

Such examples help illustrate why sloppy knowledge of names is quite a good predictor of other sloppy knowledge.

This is not a call for anal retentiveness for its own sake. Sometimes we need precision, sometimes merely approximation, and sometimes a pronoun like it will do nicely, thank you very much. Sadly, though, even the minimal clarity required to spell short pronouns is beyond most Americans, who usually misspell its as it's. The rules for proper naming are nuanced, related not just to the thing in question and its origins but to the cultural identity of the writer or speaker, as well as to the context of the communication. If this seems complex, consider it a test of whether we have enough comprehension, clarity, excellence, and respect to engage in thought or communication with each other.

We can insist on the effort in a friendly and forgiving way. If we try and fail, we have at least pushed our limits, demonstrated our good intentions, and set a good example.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: I have not been able to discern the correct spelling of Machiavelli's first name: Nicolo, Nicolò, Nicoló, Niccolo, Niccolò, or Niccoló? For anyone who does not know what I mean, correct does not mean most popular or common spelling, nor the most obscure or learned looking, nor the spelling preferred by experts or authorities. This is a literate man's name, so the only question that matters is how did he spell it? I have guessed based on which websites are sloppy or still using restricted character sets that Niccolò is a plausible enough spelling for this blog entry, but I have no confidence that I am correct. If anyone knows--and I do not mean has a plausible or intellectual sounding guess--I would love to be educated. I would also love to know of a reliable reference for such questions. The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not seem to include biographical entries.

Postpostscript: I have decided to start adding pronunciation guides to foreign names and terms, since there are likely to be so many in my blog, and since most of us who learn terms from reading make up our own incorrect pronunciations rather than seek a reliable reference. My rough pronunciation guides will only be close for those who speak the standard American English dialect, but since so few people can read the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA), and many web browsers will not even display IPA characters, and since I am too lazy to lay out a string of pictures of IPA letters, I figure my Americanese approximations are probably better than nothing at this point. I welcome corrections to any mistakes I make in approximating pronunciation.

Postpostpostscript: I would like to draw your attention to Omniglot, an online guide to writing systems. For many writing systems they include an explanation of the language's origin and pronunciation. The pronunciation is expressed in IPA, but by checking the IPA letters against the page explaining your own language and dialect's pronunciation, you can decypher how you would pronounce the language in question. For example, you can look up Italian to get the IPA spelling of Niccolò Machiavelli, then if you do not know IPA you can look up British English, or standard American English to figure out how to pronounce the IPA spelling. A few other dialects of English are listed at the bottom of the British page, but the list is by no means exhaustive--for example, no Scottish or Irish English, no Georgian or Bostonian American, and so on. We live in an imperfect world.


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