Monday, January 14, 2013


Being precise is a gift as well as a skill that takes practice. Mark Twain is quoted on the topic, discussing lightning and lightning bugs. Dr. Beverly Hofstadter on The Big Bang Theory requires it constantly. It echoes the power of naming a thing from folklore and mythology.

The Sarge, in Season 1 of Red Vs Blue, has difficulty pronouncing "Chupacabra" in his eagerness to make fun of Grif and resorts, as many of us would do, to approximating the word. Thus, the "chupathingy" is born. 

To be fair, approximations are a valid use of language. We all have those 'tip-of-the-tongue" moments where we can't recall the exact term we need. The brain files things away in its own special way sometimes. So we have place-markers like "thingamagig" and "whathisface" and "whozit" to fill in until we figure it out. Or we use similar, sometimes related terms/names to approximate what we need. For example, a man I used to know could never remember George Stroumboulopoulos' surname so would refer to him as "Snuffleupagus" instead because he had a better grasp of Muppet characters than pretty much anything else in his life. And I guess the CBC connection made it relevant.

However, the point of approximations is to direct the brain to the precise term you are looking for NOT to take the place of said term. If vocabulary becomes too vague or inaccurate, you end up with the Bushisms that #43 will always be remembered for and all the questionable intelligence that entails. Or you discover that when you REALLY need a precise term that you once knew, you've genuinely lost it. Studies show that early onset senility is as much a case of lack of use as a genetic predisposition. 

Where this shows up on the other end of the timeline is profound - language acquisition in babies. Nouns are the easiest things for children to learn as they are usually visual, tactile and novel. Pointing to something and saying a word is easily interpreted as naming that thing. Acquaintances I met last fall were describing their daughter's pre-talking activity of pointing and grunting at various things she desired. Mum would randomly pick things up and ask Baby,"Is it this? Is this what you want?" until assent was given. When Baby started verbally asking for things, everything was "this" rather than any specific name for an item. It apparently took weeks to de-program that little trick. 

When I was visiting friends in the UK who had a precocious and eager to learn toddler, we had a sudden power outage and dinner had to be served by candlelight. Their toddler immediately reached for the flame of the nearest candle and, reactively, I grabbed his hand and said clearly,"No. HOT!" indicating the flame. He looked at me very seriously and pointed to the flame and repeated "HOT!" and I reinforced the learning by agreeing "HOT!" He did not try to touch another candle that night. Lesson learned. The next night, power had been restored and we were in the living room when he looked up, saw the light fixture in the ceiling and pointed. "HOT!" In fact, anything bright was now "HOT!" Oops. Well, generally, in the world of incandescent bulbs, that's sort of accurate. Net learning for the grown-ups: adjectives are trickier.