Category Archives: language

Who the Heck Knows?

I have a new catch phrase:  “Who the heck knows?”

I started using it last fall, and ever since then I’ve found that it applies to almost everything that might arise in the future.

I don’t claim originality, but here’s how I came up with it:

At a class reunion in October, I was asked to be part of a panel of law school classmates who had veered off the usual lawyer-track and now worked in a totally different area.

Specifically, I was asked to address a simple question:  Why did I leave my work as a lawyer/law professor and decide to focus primarily on writing?

First, I explained that I’d always loved writing, continued to write even while I worked as a lawyer, and left my law-related jobs when they no longer seemed meaningful.  I added that my move to San Francisco led to launching my blog and publishing my first two novels.

I concluded:

“If I stay healthy and my brain keeps functioning, I want to continue to write, with an increasing focus on memoirs….  I’ll keep putting a lot of this kind of stuff on my blog.  And maybe it will turn into a book or books someday.

“Who the heck knows?”

 

After I said all that, I realized that my final sentence was the perfect way to respond to almost any question about the future.

Here’s why it seems to me to apply to almost everything:

None of us knows what the next day will bring.  Still, we think about it.

In “Men Explain Things to Me,” the author Rebecca Solnit notes “that we don’t know what will happen next, and the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”  She finds uncertainty hopeful, while viewing despair as “a form of certainty,” certainty that that “the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it.”

Let’s cast certainty aside and agree, with Solnit, that uncertainty is hopeful.  Let’s go on to question what might happen in the uncertain future.

For example:

We wonder whether the midterm elections will change anything.

We wonder whether our kids will choose to follow our career choices or do something totally different.

We wonder whether our family history of a deadly disease will lead to having it ourselves.

We wonder whether to plan a trip to Peru.

We wonder whether we’re saving enough money for retirement.

We wonder how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in an upcoming case.

We wonder what our hair will look like ten years from now.

We wonder what the weather will be like next week.

And we wonder what the current occupant of the White House will say or do regarding just about anything.

 

You may have an answer in mind, one that’s based on reason or knowledge or probability.   But if you’re uncertain…in almost every case, the best response is:  Who the heck knows?

If you’re stating this response to others, I suggest using “heck” instead of a word that might offend anyone.  It also lends a less serious tone to all of the unknowns out there, some of which are undoubtedly scary.

If you prefer to use a more serious tone, you can of course phrase things differently.

But I think I’ll stick with “Who the heck knows?”

Warning:  If you spend any time with me, you’ll probably hear me say it, again and again.

But then, who the heck knows?

Random Thoughts

On truthfulness

Does it bother you when someone lies to you?  It bothers me.  And I just learned astonishing new information about people who repeatedly tell lies.

According to British neuroscientists, brain scans of the amygdala—the area in the brain that responds to unpleasant emotional experiences—show that the brain becomes desensitized with each successive lie.

In other words, the more someone lies, the less that person’s brain reacts to it.  And the easier it is for him or her to lie the next time.

These researchers concluded that “little white lies,” usually considered harmless, really aren’t harmless at all because they can lead to big fat falsehoods.  “What begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

This study seems terribly relevant right now.  Our political leaders (one in particular, along with some of his cohorts) have often been caught telling lies.   When these leaders set out on a course of telling lies, watch out.  They’re likely to keep doing it.  And it doesn’t bother them a bit.

Let’s hope our free press remains truly free, ferrets out the lies that impact our lives, and points them out to the rest of us whenever they can.

[This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and noted in the January-February 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.]

 

On language

When did “waiting for” become “waiting on”?

Am I the only English-speaking person who still says “waiting for”?

I’ve been speaking English my entire life, and the phrase “waiting on” has always meant what waiters or waitresses did.  Likewise, salesclerks in a store.  They “waited on” you.

“Waiting for” was an entirely different act.   In a restaurant, you—the patron—decide to order something from the menu.  Then you begin “waiting for” it to arrive.

Similarly:  Even though you’re ready to go somewhere, don’t you sometimes have to “wait for” someone before you can leave?

Here are three titles you may have come across.  First, did you ever hear of the 1935 Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty”?  (Although it isn’t performed a lot these days, it recently appeared on stage in the Bay Area.)  In Odets’s play, a group of cabdrivers “wait for” someone named Lefty to arrive.  While they wait for him, they debate whether they should go on strike.

Even better known, Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is still alive and well and being performed almost everywhere.  [You can read a little bit about this play—and the two pronunciations of “Godot”—in my blog post, “Crawling through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland,” published in April 2016.]  The lead characters in the play are forever waiting for “Godot,” usually acknowledged as a substitute for “God,” who never shows up.

A more recent example is the 1997 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”  The cast of a small-town theater group anxiously waits for a Broadway producer named Guffman to appear, hoping that he’ll like their show.  Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the film, were pretty clearly referring to “Waiting for Godot” when they wrote it.

Can anyone imagine replacing Waiting for” in these titles with “Waiting on”?

C’mon!

Yet everywhere I go, I constantly hear people say that they’re “waiting on” a friend to show up or “waiting on” something to happen.

This usage has even pervaded Harvard Magazine.  In a recent issue, an article penned by an undergraduate included this language:  “[T]hey aren’t waiting on the dean…to make the changes they want to see.”

Hey, undergrad, I’m not breathlessly waiting for your next piece of writing!  Why?  Because you should have said “waiting for”!

Like many of the changes in English usage I’ve witnessed in recent years, this one sounds very wrong to me.

 

Have you heard this one?

Thanks to scholars at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School, I’ve just learned that workers who tell jokes—even bad ones—can boost their chances of being viewed by their co-workers as more confident and more competent.

Joking is a form of humor, and humor is often seen as a sign of intelligence and a good way to get ideas across to others.  But delivering a joke well also demands sensitivity and some regard for the listeners’ emotions.

The researchers, who ran experiments involving 2,300 participants, were trying to gauge responses to joke-tellers. They specifically wanted to assess the impact of joking on an individual’s status at work.

In one example, participants had to rate individuals who explained a service that removed pet waste from customers’ yards.  This example seems ripe for joke-telling, and sure enough, someone made a joke about it.

Result?  The person who told the joke was rated as more competent and higher in status than those who didn’t.

In another example, job-seekers were asked to suggest a creative use for an old tire.  One of them joked, “Someone doing CrossFit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.”  This participant was rated higher in status than two others, who either made an inappropriate joke about a condom or made a serious suggestion (“Make a tire swing out of it.”).

So jokes work—but only if they’re appropriate.

Even jokes that fell flat led participants to rate a joke-teller as highly confident.  But inappropriate or insensitive jokes don’t do a joke-teller any favors because they can have a negative impact.

Common sense tells me that the results of this study also apply in a social setting.  Telling jokes to your friends is almost always a good way to enhance your relationship—as long as you avoid offensive and insensitive jokes.

The take-away:  If you can tell an appropriate joke to your colleagues and friends, they’re likely to see you as confident and competent.

So next time you need to explain something to others, in your workplace or in any another setting, try getting out one of those dusty old joke books and start searching for just the right joke.

[This study, reported in The Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2017, and revisited in the same publication a week later, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]

“One” Small Step for Humankind

Eliminating gender-bias in the English language has been a preoccupation of mine for many years.  During the 1980s, I came up with an idea that I believed would be a useful remedy for one kind of gender-bias rampant in English nouns.

My hopes that this idea would gain wide acceptance escalated when the Chicago Tribune in 1986 published a piece I wrote that advocated this change.

But despite my hopes that this idea would catch on (and although a number of people told me how much they liked it), it went nowhere.  During the intervening 27 years, everyone (including me) has moved on and dealt with this issue in some other way.  But I still think my idea is a good one.  Here’s why.

Back in 1986, I observed that few people were concerned with gender-bias in our language. Those who preferred gender-free language were using “person” instead of “man,” and “he or she” instead of “he” alone, and pretty much leaving it at that.  Others had refused to make even those substitutions and continued to use traditional parlance, much of which had an undeniable male bias.

Maybe the underlying problem was sexism, pure and simple.  But I preferred to have a more generous view and came up with another conclusion.

The fundamental question, then and now:  Why do so many people continue to use words like “man” to mean men and women?  I think I know the answer.  The persistent use of the word “man” and all of the words that use “man” as a suffix—policeman, fireman, repairman, deliveryman, Congressman, and all the rest—can be blamed on a simple fact:  It’s easier to say “man” than to say “person” or any other word or suffix of more than one syllable.

Why haven’t words like “Congressperson” caught on?   Because it’s easier to say “Congressman.”  (I’d be satisfied with “Member of Congress,” like “Member of Parliament” in the U.K., but that hasn’t caught on either.)

Let’s face it.  Even the most dedicated feminists among us would prefer to say mailman instead of mail carrier or repairman instead of repairperson–IF the shorter versions were gender-neutral–because they’re easier to say.  But any word that includes the suffix “man” cannot be gender-neutral.

People can tell me that “man” includes both men and women until their faces turn blue, but I don’t believe it for one second.  Why?  Because the word “man” conjures up the image of a man.  Just think back to your childhood.  Do you remember when you were being taught the meanings of the most basic words?  Who did your parents point to when they said the word “man”?  A woman?  C’mon!  All of us were taught that “man” means a man, not a woman.  No wonder we’re confused a few years later when we encounter writing or speech using “man” that purports to mean both men and women.

It’s almost impossible to say “businessman” and envision a woman.  The same goes for every other word using the suffix “man.”  But if we balk at such infelicitous terms as “businessperson,” what substitutes can we use?

I propose using the suffix “one.”  This suffix is commonly used as part of our everyday speech.  Think of the words “anyone,” “everyone,” “someone,” and “no one.”  No one quibbles about those.  On the contrary, the use of “anyman” or “everyman” would be comical (they sound downright medieval to me).  Why not, then, extend use of the suffix “one” to other words where we have traditionally used “man”?

In recent years, some gender-neutral terms, like “firefighter,” have caught on, and for that I’m grateful.  But many people still cling to the old descriptions, like policeman and Congressman.  If we adopted my proposal, the word “policeman” could become “police-one.”  “Congressman” could become “Congress-one.”  (I’ve added a hyphen for clarity until people become accustomed to the new usage, but that hyphen could disappear as the usage became second-nature.)  Adding “one” instead of “man” or “person” is both gender-neutral and easy to say.

These new words sound strange at first (and in print they look even stranger, especially if we omit the hyphen).  But after you use “one” a few times, it begins to trip off your tongue as easily as “man” because, like “man,” it’s only one syllable.  It also doesn’t sound very different from “man” (“person” does), and you don’t have to stop to think about which suffix to use every time you want to describe someone.  Instead of trying to remember “mail carrier” and “police officer,” you could just use “one” for all of them.

Why don’t you try it?  Try saying mail-one, police-one, sports-one, Congress-one.  Even…snow-one!  It might take a bit of getting used to, but I think it could work.

In my view, it’s never too late to do the right thing.  So even though we’ve come up with ways to get around sexist language, using awkward words like “spokesperson,” it’s not too late to make things even better.

Do you agree with me that we should stop using language that excludes half of humanity?  If you do, we could try this new approach.  If each of us tries it, maybe we can start a trend that changes the English language in this small but important way.

Why don’t we do it?  Let’s be bold.  Let’s target one day to try this experiment in gender-free language and see what happens.  I propose trying it on the first day of the first month of 2014.

Please join me.  On January 1, 2014, let’s try using this short and easy way to include absolutely everyone.