Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Words Mean": Precision, Clarity, and Royal Pudding (13 July 3013)

Rich, rich, rich in flavor!
Smooth, smooth, smooth as silk,

            I'm sure there were exceptions, but my memory is that every term I taught a writing course — which pretty much meant every semester for forty years — I'd write on the board at least once, "Words means." Often words mean complexly and sometimes ambiguously, but it's only rarely and perversely that we get the Humpty-Dumpty rule that a word "means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." If you're a legislative body words can mean what you command them to mean, and you can define "weapons of mass destruction" to include a hand grenade, which is destructive, but not massively, or nerve gas, which is somewhat figuratively "destructive to life" — though less effectively than well-placed hand grenades — but leaves objects very clearly undestroyed.

            Few of us, though, have such power, and most of us, most of the time, use words to communicate and have to stick to generally accepted definitions.

            Still, many were the times my students (and older folk who should know better) said, "Oh, you know what I meant!", and sometimes I did know. "Pedagogical confusion" is an old trick, where the teacher pretends not to understand what the student is saying and prods the little sod … uh, encourages the pupil into clarifying the point. Sometimes, though, no, I didn't understand; sometimes I'd been grading essays into the small hours of the morning and had trouble even seeing the words on the page. Sometimes, yeah, I understood — but I understood because I knew the material, knew the context, knew the student's dialect, and was a professional with a lot of experience and someone paid to read and figure out what authors mean; it's really arrogant for most writers to place such expectations on normal people, working for free.

            Sometimes, though, people expect you to just know what they mean and not challenge them because they're passing on received wisdom and speaking in clichés. A few such folk have an agenda, as your boss or coach very well may when urging from you a "110% commitment"; that 110% is a figure of speech and a cliché, but it's also a veiled demand for a blank check for your time and effort.

            Most clichés, though, are less pernicious than bosses of various sorts setting themselves up to demand way more of your time and effort than you should reasonably give. (If you give more than, say, 33.3% commitment to your job or 22.7% to a sports team, you're probably short-changing your family, community, and yourself.)

            I was generally spared motivational and inspirational balderdash, and most often just got innocent lemming-thought like a fair number of my more sentimental students' seeing Romeo and Juliet's being together "forever."

            I would quote Hamlet at them and suggest that "The rest is silence" is probably the best way to think about deaths at the end of tragedies. Romeo and Juliet, as tragedies go, is highly romantic and upbeat, and ends like an Italian comedy gone horribly wrong: a new and better world coalesces around a young married couple — Verona will finally know some peace — but the newly-weds are dead. So I would repeat back to my students, "they will be together forever" and ask, where?

            Romeo and Juliet are Catholics, you know, and so were most of my students; the earliest reference to Montagues and Capulets is in Dante's Purgatorio (canto 6, lines 106-08). If Catholics get the doctrine right, and Dante correctly supplied the gory details, Romeo and Juliet are together forever in the middle ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, as trees or bushes eaten by Harpies.

            If the Protestants are right, R&J are less graphically burning in the lake of fire.

             Taking a more materialist or spiritualist view, the question is still, if "You can never kill love / When love is true" — as The Kingston Trio affirmeth unto this day on my old tapes — where does love live eternally. Unless you're a Buddhist, the fashionable cosmologies open to you insist on a doomed universe. "Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice," but there's wide agreement that the world will end. Mythically, there's the Christian Apocalypse — possibly that "fire next time" — or Nordic Ragnarok for the ice alternative. Or the universe peters out through entropy or comes to a fiery pop out of existence with The Big Crunch. Take your pick: if you want to see love lasting forever, it has to be outside our universe.

            Even a saved pair of lovers up in heaven will have their love subsumed in an infinite divine love, or they will be in a variety of hell. Think seriously for a moment on heaven as an eternal family reunion. Then wait for a Rod Serling voice-over reminding you that an eternity of anything not infinitely interesting will become torture. However much Juliet et al. think their loves infinite, eternity had better be an "eternal Now," 'cause a century or so of human time with Romeo, and she's going to try to strangle him (if he doesn't snap first).

            Romeo and Juliet's love is a bright flash, tragically beautiful, tragically brief; it's of infinite value, if you like that idea and believe, but also "sudden; / Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be / Ere one can say, 'It lightens'" (2.2.119-20): its an awesome fireworks of "fire and powder, / Which, as they kiss, consume" (2.6.10-11).

            Let it go at that, kids, I'd say; it's plenty.

            All of us some of the time and some of us much of the time just don't think much about what we're saying. And that's OK, so long as we note that when we get serious about, say, love and marriage, the legal formula is precisely, clearly, and with hope but minimal bullshit, "until death do us part."

            In less exalted matters, and more generally, precision and clarity can still be difficult.

            I recently contributed to a tribute to my colleague Brit Harwood upon his retirement from the Miami University (Oxford, OH) English Department. My comments included the point that he improved our vocabularies.

            Brit was into precision, and his suggested wording for rules and policies and reports and such were very, very precise — and sent us to the dictionary. On at least one occasion, the trip, so to speak, was worth it. Brit taught us the word "cognizable," which is a very useful word for white-collar peasants and the professorial proletariat: in an extended meaning. it's a claim that actions by one's superiors can be reviewed and potentially blocked.

            I didn't know "cognizable" but do now. Similarly with a number of words Brit used, including in communicating with the Department's Promotion and Tenure Committee. Some of Brit's totally precise terms were totally unclear to your average full professor in English at a respectable university, though not a first-rate one.

            Which brings us to another question of precision and clarity.

            The closest thing I ever had to an argument with the Chair of my Department came when I was making claims for more appreciation of my scholarship or some such thing, and my Chair said to me, "Oh, come on Rich! You've got a second-rate mind." To which I replied, "Yeah, but I'm at a third-rate university," an assertion with which he didn't argue.

            My boss and I were both PhDs from the University of Illinois at Urbana, which is a second-rate school: usually in the top twenty-five world-wide, but not in the top ten or even up there with my other alma mater, Cornell: ranking thirteenth in the Shanghai Rankings of 2012. If Miami University has ever appeared in the top 500 in the Shanghai Ranking, then I missed it.

            Talking about Miami U as "third-rate" was precise (arguably even generous) but maybe misleading. Something like "third-rank" might be better, ranking just behind, say, the academically major Big Ten schools. Miami University is a good school and nearly a perfect "fit" for many of our students; it's a place where an undergraduate and even many graduates can get a good education, usually more than adequate for their needs and abilities.

            That the whole ranking system might be legitimately characterized as having "all the intellectual respectability of a pecker contest": that's a different issue. Still, if you can't make the top 500 on an international list, calling yourself a "top-rank" institution is either really parochial — "Best School in the Miami Valley!" — or it's hyper, or lying.

            My favorite example in this area combines precision with obfuscation disguised as clarity, and with gleeful dishonesty.

            I refer to a Royal Pudding jingle from my childhood, the one I quote as my headnote and can sing from memory, and the associated Royal Pudding ads.

            The ad copy touts that Royal Pudding has "74% more food energy than fresh whole milk" in large red type and informs you that that extra energy is "in every delicious serving!" That last part is undoubtedly true, given that it'd be 74% more food energy in any size serving. The ad continues in smaller, black type, "Milk is Nature's best food — as every mother knows. It's needed for strong, sturdy bodies, for growth, for vitality. But a serving of ROYAL PUDDING gives you all the benefits of the milk you make it with plus 74% more Food Energy," and then goes on with useful and straight-forward reminders that you can buy Regular  ROYAL or Instant ROYAL.

            The Royal Pudding people got into trouble for misleading advertising.

            Regular or Instant, Royal or Jell-O or homemade, you make pudding by adding to milk a thickening ingredient, stuff for the specific taste (color preservation), a touch of salt, and sugar or sugars, lots of sugar.

            Sugar is the point with most desserts — well, and fat, which the whole milk supplies — and Royal Pudding delivered sugar, and with it a whole bunch of food energy.

            Food energy in the US and UK is measured in "food calories" or "dietary calories" or kilocalories.

            Now consider a modified form of the jingle (and ad): " Rich, rich, rich in flavor! / Smooth, smooth, smooth as silk, / More food cal-o-ries than (even) fresh, whole milk!" Since the extra calories are (a) plentiful and (b) pretty much uncontaminated by vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, or nutrients you might want in addition to high-power carbs and fat, tight-ass nutritionists and various health agencies would deride them as "empty calories" and assert that rich, sugary, smooth Royal Pudding and its successor products are pretty much just fattening.

            Still, the jingle and ad might be misleading, but they are eminently defensible as precise.

            Verily, even (sort of) as it is more exact to talk of "the environment" rather than "the ecology" and "rock formations" rather than "the geology," so it is more exact to talk of The Thing Itself, food energy, than the units in which food energy is measured, i.e., for most of us, calories.

            Changing "energy" to "calories" would make the ad less precise.

            My memory is that the ad was eventually pulled but not before it had run its course and drummed that dumb-ass jingle into at least hundreds of thousands of little minds. And frankly, I kind of admire the hucksters who developed the Roy-al Pud-ding! ad campaign. It's a rare and brilliant example of how to be precise and apparently clear while being memorable, effective, and really, really, dishonest.

            "Words mean," but if you're wily enough they can mean in nastily misleading ways and get the gullible public buying a lot of product. 

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