Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Raisins are dried grapes?!?

The episode "A Little Bit of Knowledge" on This American Life is one of the best ones I've heard yet.

The first story "When Small Thoughts Meet Big Brains" is about those things you find out embarrassingly late. Finding out at age 34 that Nielsen families are not all named Nielsen. Finding out in your 20s that <Xing> on a street sign is not pronounced 'zing.' Thinking that quesadilla is Spanish for 'what's the deal?' or that unicorns really exist.

When I was in high school one of my older sister's friends scoffed when I mentioned reindeer. They're not real she said accusingly. Yes they are I insisted. They're sometimes also called Caribou. Haven't you seen them? I explained that they live in northern regions and they look like a cross between a deer and a moose. Once she saw that I really believed my story she cautiously asked with skeptical realization: And they can really fly?

Last month Heidi Harley mentioned a blinding flash of light upon her realization several years ago

that the speech hesitations spelled "er" and "erm" in British texts are intended to sound just like the hesitations spelled "uh" and "um" in American texts. I'd been reading them internally as [əɹ], [əɹm], and if you'd asked me to read them aloud, that's how I'd have done it, even though never in my life had I heard anyone hesitate with such a noise. What a ninny.

And several commenters chimed in regarding the same surprise.

Lynneguist mentions her own related post from a month before.

(Shamelessly competitive aside: I posted on it about 20 months ago.)

Ray Girvan comments
For me, the epihany was recognising that the disapproving "Tut, tut", "Tch, tch" or "Tsk, tsk" said by comic-book characters represented a dental click. And yet, at least jokingly, people do say "Tut, tut" sometimes.

And in his own comment languagehat announces his own blinding flash of light caused by another comment mentioning Eeyore as a donkey's bray.

These blinding flashes of light are not worth hiding. It's great to admit that you've just learned something. It can be a little embarrassing but so what. It sounds a lot worse to say that you've always known everything that everybody your age knows. It's obvious that you're both bragging and lying.

  • Just a couple months ago I learned that there were no rooms in ancient Rome just for throwing-up called vomitoriums (vomitoria?). Buffy informed me.
  • I had my B.A. in English before I learned that the Norman Invasion was not just another name for the Roman Invasion.
  • I completed my minor in psychology, had secondary ed certification in 2 states and had taught it for 3 years before I realized that I had been flipping the roles of the ego and the superego.
  • About 2 years ago I realized that in Old English writing, <ea> was probably a simplification of <æa> and was pronounced with an initial [æ] not [e]. (I know! Right?)

    There are more. Many more. But I think you need to admit some now.


    Oh yes. The real gem in the episode of This American Life: the prologue suggests that people who say a lot about a topic they barely understand sound like a magazine: Modern Jackass. The magazine doesn't exist of course, but people who don't admit ignorance are in abundance.

    Nancy Updike: You know my mother sends me information about um partially hydrogenated oils. And then when somebody says Wait why is partially hydrogenated oil bad again? and I say Well It's an unstable compound. Which it is. It's oil to which hydrogen has been added in order to make it solid at room temperature. That I know. That's a fact.

    Ira Glass: And why would that be bad Nancy?

    Nancy: Well that's where we get into Modern Jackass territory. It's unstable and your body … your … your … you know … it … there … there's an extra hydrogen atom that can interact with uh … things …

    I really hope calling Modern Jackass catches on. But so help me -- if one of you puts it in the comments...


    1. I'm trying to think of some of the things that I learned embarrassingly late...but I'm coming up blank. There were others besides the er/uh erm/um thing, though.

      But I was reminded here of teaching university students in South Africa. I had written a question for a pragmatics assignment, in which the students were asked to identify the implicature (and the Gricean maxim involved) in the utterance "I'm so old, I had a dinosaur as a pet". Several of my students replied that this meant that the speaker was a liar or a fantasist, and did not understand my model answer that it implicated "I consider myself quite old--and I don't want to tell you how old". This was because they thought that dinosaurs were mythical beings.

      I believe that's because they went to mission schools. So, I suppose one'd get the same answer in some states where creationism is taught!

    2. No, creationists think dinosaurs are real, just not very old. See the Creation Museum in Kentucky, with its dioramas of Adam and Eve and dinosaurs... Sigh.

    3. ps - that Eeyore as Cockney donkey, and Winnie-ther-Pooh as Winnie THE Pooh, were quite late for me, too.

    4. I love this post! Can't think of too many particulars, but this happens to me constantly, and not only with fact-data, but also with insights about human nature or my own mind that I should've learned when I was 12.

      Once, sitting with my family in a Big Boy when I was about 16, I picked up the Quality-Questionairre-Card, and when I got to number five, read aloud, "Atmosphere: Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average, Poor."

      Then I looked up from the card and took a deep, long breath: "Excellent," I said.

    5. Appropriately late on the uptake here, but I find that my big late-life epiphanies are etymological. I suddenly realize that a word I had always known is obviously derived from another common word (or a shared root) without ever having seen the connection.

      The latest: brutish/brute and Brutus. (Not a clean etymological link, because the latter is a name, but I was still floored by the Latin tie.)

      Can't think of the others right now, but every time it happens my linguistic world is rocked a little bit. The words seems to take on new connotations and depths of meaning. And I feel silly that, as an English studies scholar, I never caught on before.


    Thanks for reaching out.

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