weblog incendre

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/03/19 03:01 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/03/19/554539.aspx

As Eric Bogosian once said in Talk Radio, "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words cause permanent damage."

I talked about this once before in the post Looking out for those words of curse, and pointed out how the South Park episode in question at times made and at other times refuted the claim that the intent of the words had a lot to do with how the words are treated (whether they are fun to say, whether they are censored, whether they cause the earth to open up and a fire breathing dragon to come out, or whatever).

And it is true that if one has ill intent, one can go a long way towards causing pain.

But friend Jodie pointed out an additional issue to me in mail:

I like South Park, too. But intent is not the only important issue here, Michael.

Most people do not intentionally say hurtful things all day long. For them, it is the unintended slight that causes the most damage. I'm sure you know what I am talking about. Like the burst of honesty that was a little too honest, and if you notice you wonder afterwards "Did I say that out loud?"

When people try to be hurtful, we do not heed their words as carefully unless the words play into our own concerns.

She has a point (and a couple of other people also made the same point). There is a good reason why we hurt the ones we love. It is a throwaway claim to point out that we hurt the ones we love because no one else would stand for it; the truth is that only the ones we allow to be close to us will even have the opportunity to hurt us in some cases, whether it is intentional or not.

In fact, it can often be the words spoken causually without specific intent that can cause the problems. It reminds me of a bit of dialog from a Buffy episode:

Riley: These spells... these really work? I mean, can you really turn your enemies inside out? Or learn to excrete gold coins?
Anya: That one's not so much fun.
Willow: They work, Riley, but they take concentration. Being attuned with the forces of the universe.
Xander: Right you can't just go "librum incendere" and expect... (his book bursts into flames)
Giles: Xander, don't speak Latin in front of the books.

It is amusing to think that speaking Latin in front of the magic books in Buffy's universe could have such an effect, probably at least as much as the idea that poems in the Charmed universe can wreak such havoc (though I would have to say that Paige's spell that was written as a haiku:

The brittle winter
gives way to flowers of spring;
Ludlow is vanquished.

may lead us out of the rhyming silliness (note that demons on the show never have to be poets!) -- I guess I am waiting for a Walt Whitman style poem to show up, or something akin to e.e. cummings.

(After having worked with her mom, I feel certain that Rose can do it, if anyone can!).

Of course those fictional cases kind of show that intent may not really be the relevant factor, since it might be there and might not.

One could argue that it might be irresponsible to say 'librum incendere' in front of the books, and one could be thankful that there is no Latin word for blog (because posting 'weblog incendre' might actually cause this site to catch fire!), but that is fiction. Is there an analogue to all this in the real world?

The truth is that words, that language, communicate different things to different people.

What we call intent is in a lot of ways one piece of the pragmatic content of the words.

And when someone talks to you, the way that you understand those words is another piece of the pragmatic puzzle that leads to determining what effect the words will have.

If the words (intentionally or unintentionally) echo thoughts or concerns or joys you have, they could have a lot more effect than if you have no such context.

So intent may be a part of it, but the things said unintentionally can have just as much range and striking power. Or perhaps even more.

By the way, please be sure to let me know if the page is on fire after I posted 'weblog incendre' and all....


Sorry, Jana!

# Jonno Downes on 19 Mar 2006 3:56 AM:

Not only is your weblog on fire, the words of curse URL is causing the server to break out in a bad case of 500 server error.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 19 Mar 2006 4:53 AM:

Well, I have no firefighting equipment, but I can fix the link.

Everyone stay away from the elevators.... :-)

# Dean Harding on 19 Mar 2006 5:45 PM:

Well, as any discworld fan will tell you,

Knowledge = Power = Energy = Matter = Mass

So the written word (= Knowlegde) can, if concentrated enough, have the power of a black hole! Or, as Prachett says, "A good bookshop is just a genteel black hole that knows how to read."

# Alun Jones on 20 Mar 2006 11:47 AM:

Note that this comes from an employee of a company that keeps a list of swear-words (or other things you "shouldn't type"), so as to make sure those words don't make it into source code or comments.
Even "hate" is a forbidden word in Policheck.  [I don't think I'm spilling any corporate secrets when I reveal that fact.]

# Michael S. Kaplan on 20 Mar 2006 12:23 PM:

Hi Alun,

No one runs Policheck on this blog -- if I swear here, then the curse word will stand.

But the children in South Park taught me well -- I only do it sparingly. :-)

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referenced by

2009/01/07 Counting to four with the Holy Hand Grenade of Typography

2007/10/22 San Diego incendre (maybe you could help me give them a hand?)

2006/04/03 The Sri Lanka time zone shift?

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