30 04 2011

It’s odd how you increase your own lexicon. It’s a curious blend of serendipity and conscious exploratory follow-up.

An example, starting with the “conscious exploratory follow-up”.  I have only just discovered the word obliquity, pronounced ur-BLIK-wi-tee, or if you prefer standard IPA, əˈblɪkwɪti. Now, I’ve long known oblique, but had no idea there was a noun or that obliquity was it.   The dictionary predictably (and pretty uselessly) tells me that obliquity means “the state of being oblique”. But something that was useful was the additional sense carried in “oblique”, namely that there may be a hint of deception; and that the adjectival form obliquitous  is very suggestive of such deceit.

If “oblique” means not straight, at an angle, sloping, then it’s easy to see how the deceptive sense taps into one of the metaphorical uses of “straight”  –  upfront, honest, direct. I’m able now to imagine a sentence like the following: “Politicians, used car salesmen and real estate agents are infamous for their obliquities”.

We know that Shakespeare’s Caesar said “Let me have men around me who are fat” (I,ii). He might just as easily have demonised oblique as he did thin.

The fact is that English has a myriad ways to be oblique. A dip into any book on Pragmatics will take you to a section on Negative Politeness whereupon you will be confronted with umpteen ways in which you can avoid being straight up.  I have no reason to think other languages are not equally well equipped – or roughly so, allowing for the fact that languages do vary in how they favour or disfavour directness.

So, back to where I started. The “conscious exploratory follow-up” is the dictionary work I did on encountering obliquity. The serendipity factor was seeing it as the title of a newly released book –  Obliquity. Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. It’s by John Kay (Penguin 2011), who despite being both an academic and an economist, can write reasonably transparently.

The book is all about the concept of obliquity – what it is, how it’s all around us, why solving problems directly is often counter-productive, how an oblique approach can be both helpful and productive. You can draw from it your own conclusions of course,  but it’s good to bear in mind along the way the evidence presented on why the happiest people do not set out to pursue happiness.

My own research has taught me that there are risks both in directness and in obliquity. In neither case are these risks insurmountable, but in both cases they need to be approached pre-emptively and mindfully.

Like much in life, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.


12 07 2010

Apparently, Mark Twain, famous American writer (think Huck Finn) and aphorist, said the following:

When red-haired people are above a certain social grade, their hair is auburn.

redhead matchbox imageThe question then becomes, will new Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard turn auburn or stay a redhead?

Meanwhile, everything redheaded seems to be catching the news. For example, here’s one outlet that has 41 pictures of famous redheads – including the iconic matchbox.

Meanwhile too, we’re awash with other words for redhead:

for example:

bloodnut, ranga, ginga, blue and coppertop

A blogger who specialises in the language of naming devotes an entire post to the term ranga, which apparently derives from orangutan, but this may or may not be true.


20 06 2010

I once did a plenary paper about “assumptions” for a Language Conference. It was subtitled: I’ll have  what she’s having, an utterance borrowed from the movie When Harry met Sally (1989), which as everyone knows was built on a mountain of assumptions, most of them false. My paper explored the often unwitting gap that stretches between what is taught and what is learned.

I was interested to read something recently, in an essay submitted by a Masters student of mine (at Anaheim University), where assumptions again take centre stage. I’ve reprinted it here, with Laurel Costill’s permission, because it’s so beautifully pithy. She writes –

Explaining how misunderstandings occur:

In order to formulate a sentence, a speaker must first evaluate how much the hearer already knows. At this step, it’s possible that the speaker evaluates the hearer incorrectly. For instance, by the speaker’s statement that the hearer looks like Selma Hayek, the speaker was giving a compliment; the speaker assumes that the hearer has the same opinion of beauty of Selma Hayek.

However, the hearer may only know of Ms. Hayek from the movie Frida and interprets the comment to mean that she desperately needs to pluck her eyebrows.

Westchester Widow

20 05 2010

Unpacking Personals: Westchester Widow

This advert appeared in the Personals  of The New York Review of Books, October 8-9, 2009, Vol LVI, No 15.

Westchester widow seeks friendship with man, 75-85, who loves Mozart, especially the Marriage of Figaro. Contact etc.

Google tells me that “Westchester County is a suburban county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and has a diverse population…” There’s another such place in Pennsylvania, but it’d be less likely, all things considered. Being an outsider, I’m not sure what socio-economic cue “Westchester widow” would give off for an insider, but I’d guess (it’s only a guess) something like “of comfortable, independent means”. It feels rather formulaic – like she’s giving out her gender (female), her marital status (widow) and socio-economic class. And if she’s travelling down to the Met for her regular opera fix, she’s likely to have a healthy bank balance. Note she’s seeking “friendship”, a loose term if ever there was, especially so since the advent of electronic social networking, though I doubt our widow is using it in the Facebook sense. “Friend” can suggest with or without benefits.  All things considered, it probably means companionship –  “a person to attend opera with”. Given that the few words of a Personals ad are all the space she has to present herself and her quest, what does her love of Mozart say about her? Because we surely have to infer that she herself feels the love of Mozart that she wishes her quarry to have. Does she perhaps identify with Mozart’s Countess, sadly recalling a philandering husband,  urging all to be festive and merry, while an accompanying solo oboe almost weeps as she sings? What might all this, the passions as well as the tensions, convey to her would-be companion?  Note too how few stipulations she has: all he has to be is elderly and love Mozart, especially Figaro. What if he loves Mozart, but not particularly Figaro? Would he have a chance? What would a love of Figaro actually mean, in terms of human characteristics? What if he had such characteristics, but still didn’t love Figaro? Is a love of Mozart able to be faked? My issue with this ad, apart from the above ambivalences is: surely an elderly widow of refined musical taste would in reality harbour more must-haves and must-not-haves than what she’s stated? What if he has all the requirements… plus nose hair? Unlikely, I’m informed by one-who-knows, who says a love of Mozart and the presence of nose hair are mutually incompatible.  What if he has all requisites, but  also a police record (say, for axe-murdering)? The essential question, then, becomes: At what point of personal unpleasantness does the love of Mozart etc cease to forgive all else?

Negotiation at the heart of interaction. The case of Sasha and the car

25 04 2010

Here is a conversation between myself and my son, Sasha, from some 15 years ago. I’ve often used it for teaching purposes, most especially to demonstrate the effects of pragmatics, negotiation and face-saving elements of interaction.


I (R) am upstairs in my study, Sasha (S) is downstairs, heading towards the front door, about to leave the house, so it is not face-to-face but within earshot.


R’s car is often used by S but not without prior permission and arrangements having been negotiated.  Usually he has it back by 3 which allows R to go pick up her daughter  from school.

L1        S:  OK I’m off. See you at 3.

L2        R:  Are you taking the car?

L3        S:  Can I?

L4        R:  Are you?

L5        S:  Do you want me to?

It is significant that R raises the topic of the car (L2) after S has effectively closed the conversation and is on the point of leaving.

R responds not by saying something like “see you” but by asking a question. The question however targets a range of speech acts: it could be a simple inquiry about the means of transport; or it could be a warning that he has not obtained permission (c.f. `you’re not taking the car, are you?’); or it could be an offer (c.f. `do you want to take the car?’).

On this particular occasion R had thought S was using public transport. When, however, he said `see you at 3′, R was alerted to the possibility that he might have intended to use the car. Thus when S said `see you at 3′, R wanted to confirm that the car wasn’t being used because on this day she needed it before 3 as well.

The question actually meant `I hope you’re not intending to use the car because you can’t’. R used an indirect form so as not to appear too `heavy’ – i.e. to protect his face (against attack)  and her own face (against making false accusation) in case he had had no intention of using the car. She does not want to come down heavy on him if it is undeserved. Hence the pragmatic ambivalence  of her question which will allow her retreat-ability in the event that it turns out he has been falsely accused.

In fact, S had had no intention of using the car knowing that it had been needed, and knowing that he has to establish prior permission. However, in hearing R’s question `are you taking the car?’ he realises that it might actually, unexpectedly, be on offer. Ever the pragmatist when it comes to car use, he chooses to interpret it as an offer. His bald-on-record `can I?’ (L3) is designed to confirm the offer and score points by reinforcing how he plays by the rules in always asking for permission.

However, the question is not without its own risks: it challenges R by answering her question with a question.  R, however, has now realised that S had not intended to use the car but is now angling to get it. Busy and a bit irritated (caused in part by his not answering her directly),  she is unwilling to begin now to renegotiate the use of the car.

At the risk of further escalating tension by not responding to S’s question and returning to insist on an answer to her own question (an insistence that may be construed as face threat), she sticks to her guns, demanding a straight answer (yes or no) to the original question inquiring about his intention to use the car.

Meanwhile, S is still positioning himself to maximum advantage for the chance to get the car. To keep the hope alive, he cannot answer `yes’ or `no’. If he responds with `yes’ and it turns out he had not sought permission, then he’ll be in trouble, which itself may impact on future car use.

If he answers `no’, then it means he was planning to go without it and this will undermine the current urgency of need and the eleventh-hour possibility of getting the car. He therefore is trapped – forced into a corner where only a yes/no will suffice but either will condemn him.

One of the few options left now is to side-step the issue of what he has done and what he should do. He does this by effecting a radical shift in agency and process. In his response (L5) he switches agency to R and introduces the new process `want’. In so doing he has shifted responsibility to R as agent and re-defined the entire exchange as one in which permission to use the car depends not on his asking for permission or the car’s availability but on R’s desire for him to use it.

It’s risky. The continued delay in his answering her question augments the tension. To off-set this, he probably realises on some level that the act of highlighting R’s wants also serves as an act of deference to R’s power in an essentially asymmetrical relationship: it allows S to position himself as lowly and dependent.

He must also realise that anointing R in this way – i.e. by reminding R of her power – may accrue him some benefit: best case scenario is that, cued to her power, R may subsequently choose to exercise it through magnanimity.

And what would be more appropriate in this context and on this occasion than granting him use of the car?


15 04 2010

I’m not sure of the provenance of this cartoon. An online student of mine at The New School in New York City posted it on the Discussion Board during a unit on discourse and context. It can mean almost anything, I suppose, though I tend to think she meant it to mean that the character in the foreground,  waiting at a table without a talking partner, has no obligation to spell out his thoughts or the context in which they’re embedded.  His “The” was enough.