Archive for the Favorite Words Category

How many complaints does it take to ban Neil Gaiman?

Posted in Doom, Favorite Words, Fiction, Politics and Society with tags , on October, 2013 by melendwyr

Just one, according to Leah Schnelbach at

The text of Neverwhere had been accepted as part of the reading list for nine years… and, as a result of a single complaint from a single individual who never even met with the teachers involved, it was removed.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the scene in question is sufficiently objectionable to justify removal:  if they were willing to remove it after a single complaint, why did they approve it in the first place?  Did they find it offensive but decided it wouldn’t matter until someone complained?  That’s disturbing in one way.  Did they not find it offensive but were willing to remove it at the slightest hint of parental discomfort?  That’s disturbing in another.

What’s truly tragic is that everyone else, even the student body, seems to have enjoyed the book.  It’s been many years since my horrific journey through the American educational system, but as I recall dimly through the mists of time, enjoying the act of reading was uncommon, and enjoying reading assignments was even rarer.  Removing something that the students liked is a serious loss, both to the kids and to the people whose responsibility it is to educate them.

And why?  A few F-bombs and some light petting.

By Definition

Posted in Favorite Words on November, 2010 by melendwyr

A comment at TGGP’s caught my eye recently. It addresses (rather drolly) the idea that ‘over-simplification can be bad’.

But of course, over-simplification is necessarily bad in some important way, because otherwise it would just be simplification. ‘Over’ conveys excessiveness, missing a target of some kind, and that implies a value judgment.

A common rhetorical strategy is to confuse a value-neutral concept with a value-laden one, particularly through substitution; I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard someone argue that ‘reductionism is bad’ who follows it up with examples of gross over-reductionism.

(Note: there is no argument which attempts to accurately portray some aspect of the world that is not reductionist. Breaking the holistic universe into discrete elements is what perception is all about, after all, and no mental representation can match the full complexity of the systems it’s embedded in.)

Words, Words, Words

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Another frequently-misunderstood word: Anarchy.

It’s come to mean disorder and chaos:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” [Emphasis mine.]

And anarchists are supposed to be those who seek to overthrow all order and structure.

But the word comes from the Greek: an- is a prefix meaning ‘without’, and archon a word meaning ‘ruler’, ‘lord’, or ‘law-giver’; it was the title of the position of chief magistrate of the ancient city-states of Greece. It is the enforcer of law, the imposer of structure.

Anarchy really means “without leaders” or “without rulers”; it means the absence of the kind of law that is enforced from above, instead of rising from below.

Favorite Words, Et Cetera

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

I’m not really an ‘originalist’. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the first manifestation of a thing is necessarily better, purer, or more useful than the forms it may later take.

But I do often find that the original usages of words are frequently more illuminating than the meanings to which they have come to refer. Maybe this is because bad people find it in their interests to corrupt the expression of certain ideas, or maybe it’s just a coincidence of linguistic drift.

Nevertheless, I maintain a fondness for cosmopolitan, and the days when it meant more than Ten Exciting New Fashion Atrocities and Five Places Your Man Secretly Hopes You Won’t Put Your Tongue. And more than its formal, modern meaning of “belonging to no specific nation” or “drawn from the world as a whole rather than a nation”.

The suffix -politan comes from the Greek word polis, which means city or city-state, and thus means ‘citizen’. But cosmos is a more complex idea. It roughly translates as ‘universe’, but rather than having spatial or material associations, it refers to the entirety of the natural order; its companion-opposite is chaos, the unformed, undifferentiated, and unruled potentiality from which the world-as-we-know-it sprang.

Someone who is truly cosmopolitan isn’t just a citizen of the world, their allegiance flows to the deepest nature of reality. The degeneration of meaning which has reduced the word to a trashy sex mag for tasteless young women is utterly to be regretted.

The Bed of Procrustes

Posted in Favorite Words, Useful Aphorisms with tags , on September, 2009 by melendwyr

It’s time for another “Favorite Words” – something I haven’t done in quite a while. And I’ll combine it with “Useful Aphorisms”

This is more of a phrase than a word per se, although the adjective Procrustean will do just fine in a pinch.

Wikipedia actually has a good article on the phrase’s mythological origins and some of its uses here. Long story short: it signifies enforced conformity by referring to a famous host/bandit who invited travelers to stay the night and then trapped them on an iron bed; if they were too short for the bed, they were stretched until they fit, and if too long the excess was chopped off.

To be “normal” is a splendid ideal for the unsuccessful, for all those who have not yet found an adaption. But for people who have far more ability than the average, for whom it was never hard to gain successes and to accomplish their share of the world’s work–for them restriction to the normal signifies the bed of Procrustes, unbearable boredom, infernal sterility and hopelessness. As a consequence there are many people who become neurotic because they are only normal, as there are people who are neurotic because they cannot become normal. For the former, the very thought that you want to educate them to normality is a nightmare; their deepest need is really to be able to lead “abnormal” lives.

– Carl Jung, “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”

What’s the Problem with Cynicism?

Posted in Doom, Favorite Words, Politics and Society on May, 2009 by melendwyr

Seriously, what?

I frequently come across people accusing others of being ‘cynical’ or ‘cynics’ as though it were some moral failing, a weakness of character.

What exactly is the problem? As far as I see, cynicism is both fairly accurate and an entirely reasonable position to take in the world in which we live.

Thoughts? I’d love an explanation. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from someone who believes with that common opinion – just as long as they know why it happens.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Posted in Favorite Words, GIGO on March, 2009 by melendwyr

Today’s word is neurosis. What does it mean? It’s defined as “a term used to refer to any mental imbalance that causes distress, but, unlike a psychosis or some personality disorders, does not prevent or affect rational thought”.

Got that?

Okay, so: why is it used interchangeably with the behaviors and responses that are supposedly the result of a neurosis?

Note that there is no point where the supposed neurological problem is defined operationally. It is instead presumed to exist because of the symptoms, because the neurosis is what the thing supposedly responsible for those symptoms is called. Where’s the demonstration that there is a glitch in the neurology that constitutes an illness? There isn’t one.