What’s the Word?

What’s the word for when you receive new information that alters your way of thinking? In particular, for when you thought things were one way, expected them to be that way, but the new information surprises you.

I used to think it was the word frisson, but that word (from the French, “to be cold”) refers to the pleasant thrill shiver you experience at the awards ceremony just before they open the envelope that might contain your name. Or when you watch a horror movie (assuming you like watching horror movies).

That’s not quite what I mean. There is—at least for me—some thrill shiver associated with learning a new and surprising thing, but I need a word that focuses more on the sense of realignment that occurs to your worldview.

There is also the word bemused, which is a fancy and perhaps milder way of saying confused or bewildered. (And don’t confuse bemused and amused. Being bewildered is bemazing not amazing!)

But bemused isn’t quite what I want, either. The information doesn’t confuse so much as adjust your thinking. It’s that, “Ah Ha!” moment when you realize something you’ve thought for a long time was wrong, and now those memory cells need to be over-written with the new information.

It’s like when you’ve spent a long time thinking that word was “frisson,” because you remember reading it described as such a long time ago. But then you go to write a blog article about frisson, so you look it up to verify its exact meaning…

Only to find you’ve been using it slightly wrong all these years!

So what’s the word I want; what’s the right word for this? A bit of browsing hasn’t turned it up yet, so the search is on. Suggestions encouraged and welcome!

In the meantime, from my memory files, here are two other times I experienced a sense of [fill in the blank].

The Linguist

A long, long time ago, in a life far, far away, I had one of those moments when you suddenly see the world from another viewpoint and realize there’s another way of looking of things that had never occurred to you. The moment was powerful enough to stick with me ever since.

I was at a large family holiday gathering; the sort where you meet relatives you didn’t know you had or, as in this case, meet new spouses (of relatives I didn’t know I had).

The spouse in question was (for all I know, still is) a professional linguist. “Ah, ha!” I thought. “Here’s a chance for some professional validation on a point that’s been bothering me, but which seems to not bother others.”

So I popped the question, “[As a professional linguist] Doesn’t it bother you how the language has devolved?”

The surprise answer was that, no it didn’t, because professional linguists study the language as it evolves. Linguistic evolution is neither “good” nor “bad”, it simply is.

Grammarians and English teachers (and many of us who hold language precious) may be concerned with proper use. We may deeply regret—even hate—how language devolves, but linguists study language as anthropologists study societies. Without judgement.

That was an eye-opener; the idea that one way to look at language is as a living thing that changes. The change is certainly different, but is it always necessarily bad? To be honest, despite the viewpoint shift, I still have to answer with a resounding yes!

To me, communication is an indicator of our humanity; it sets us apart from the animal kingdom. To me, the better you are at communicating, the more human prove yourself to be. More importantly, the cry of the inept or careless is often, “Well, you understood me, didn’t you?!”

Yes, maybe this time; maybe most times. But a time may come when the ability to communicate clearly, accurately and effectively will be very important.  I think it’s a good idea to have the tools to do so when the need is crucial.

As an aside, the interweb is changing the world in big ways right now, and many of us (including yours truly) look at some of it with a great deal of concern. It seems clear that some bad things are happening right now, but perhaps we’re just in a time of change. Perhaps it all works out in the future.

Or perhaps not. Which brings me to…

Happy Endings

There was also a time in college, when I read how Western culture likes stories with resolved and explained endings. Westerners, it claimed, like having everything laid out and explained. It went on to say that Japanese culture, among others, doesn’t mind unresolved or unexplained endings to stories.

Japanese readers don’t require everything explained; things can be just accepted. After all, life isn’t always explained or resolved. Why wouldn’t stories follow life? Stories, after all, are about life.

Is it that Western culture takes comfort from their stories? Is this new in our culture or has it always been a Western mode? (Was that text even correct? I’ve never researched this; it could be false!) Does the Puritanical origin of our culture play a factor? The original Grimm’s fairy tales were quite dark compared to the tales we spin for our children at bedtime. When did we begin living in such a sanitized society?

I’m reminded of 1950s TV shows where married couples had two beds. Or the Hays Code rule about actors on beds always having at least one floor on the floor. (Trust me on this (or experiment for yourself): even two feet on the floor is no limitation!)

As a society becomes more “civilized” does it attempt to hide its animal origins? We all pee, shit and sweat, yet these are the very things we seek to hide away, to mask with potions and tricks.  We all fuck. If we didn’t, it would be the end of the race. We must all face the sometimes uncomfortable fact that our existence is proof positive that our parents fucked. Yet we are laughed at by many cultures for going to such great lengths to not talk about it.

Perhaps this is just another swinging pendulum. As we look back in history, we find eras that were both more open and more closed. The “roaring 20s” were famously as wild as anything we hippies came up with in the 60s.

But I have wandered off the point. Which is that I began to consider the idea of stories that didn’t explain themselves, that didn’t wrap things up in a nice neat bow. Despite the occasional complaints I’ve heard, isn’t Thelma & Louise a far better movie for ending exactly when it did?

America is still a young culture. Perhaps as cultures grow more mature, they leave behind their simplistic fairy tales and begin to dine on more sophisticated fare. Perhaps that’s true of individuals as well. I know I’ve come to appreciate unresolved mystery in my stories. And I definitely like it when stories surprise me by finding a new path through ancient fields.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “What’s the Word?

  • It's only P!

    Of course as a logophile and compulsive word looker-upper (you can hit me on the fingers for this one, I don’t care) I know exactly what it feels like when your brain twists upon learning you had it wrong all along. It’s a sense of indignation. The brain short-circuits a nanosecond but to a language nitpicker this seems much longer! 😛 We were wrong all along? Shameful. And here my (unplanned) answer reveals itself. It’s a sense of shame! Who all knows about it?!

    Just the pot calling the kettle black. Did you get a job?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! I know exactly what you mean about pronunciation! Quite some time ago the computer language magazines were talking about how the C++ language is a new paradigm. I figured that word was probably pronounced “pa-rad-a-gym!” 😕

      I had an English teacher, Mr. Wilson in fact, who told us, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud and proud. If someone else knows better, they’ll correct you, and you’ll learn. If no one else knows, no real harm done. And if someone does know better, but says nothing, fuck’m.” (Well, he didn’t quite say it that way, but that’s what he meant.)

      Shame… you know, thinking about it, I’ve never considered ignorance shameful. We’re all ignorant of far more than not. Now, willful ignorance… very different matter! But not knowing something never bothered me in myself or anyone else. It’s just an opportunity to learn!

      I did get a new position!

      • It's only P!

        Hey, I don’t buy this! ‘…not knowing something never bothered me in myself or anyone else.’

        How do you know when people confuse their with they’re and there, whether this is wilful (UK sp.) ignorance or not? Yet, it irks the hell out of you, non?

        If almost everyone, even people with degrees, say things like “I wish I would have went,” it becomes standard. A given. It is never questioned. One can hardly call it ignorance, but it hurts the language purist, doesn’t it? I endured this for eight years in Canada.

        So as most people confuse their written ‘theirs’ it becomes a linguistic pandemic. They do not know any better. This doesn’t bother you?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If they truly don’t know the difference between they’re and there, it doesn’t bother me at all. Then it’s a teaching opportunity. When teaching is refused, it can be ego, pride or a willful desire to remain ignorant. One can often judge by the nature of the reaction which is which, but you can never know.

        Hillary Clinton got mocked for her, “It takes a village,” line, but I think she was saying something that I agree with, and that I think is right on. We all participate in growing the universal consciousness. Our every social act creates ripples that spread out affecting others. We can add to that dynamic positively or negatively.

        We each have larger areas of ignorance than not. When we help each other fill in those areas, sharing our knowledge, then ignorance is reduced. Maybe the way to say it is that I regret ignorance and wish to correct it, but I don’t fault it; it’s not something to be ashamed of.

        But I do fault stubborn refusal to learn.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oops, sorry, I missed your second point. You’re right, usage gets sloppy when even educated people who should know better misuse language. So long as the usage is consistent, it can become new usage. That’s part of the dynamics of English, and it’s been going on a long, long time. Neologisms occur, words die out, grammar shifts; it’s inevitable. My “Ah, Ha!” moment was being instructed that in itself, you can’t judge that as “bad” or “good,” it just is.

        But I still think that when language changes in ways that inhibit precise or elegant communication, then you can apply a value judgement. You can regret that something is lost; I think that’s legitimate. A problem with language purism is, “What language are you going to be pure about?” As you note in your comment, modern, acceptable spelling varies between to English-speaking countries. And there are myriad differences. Go back 100 years, and the style books indicate what are now archaic usages.

        All that said, willful ignorance, a huge and growing problem in our culture, is creating (as you say) a population that doesn’t know any better. But that’s not their fault; it’s the fault of those that created the situation, and, oh yes, that bothers me! Turning a blind eye to the need for education is, I believe, the biggest single problem of today.

  • thegreenstudy

    I thought a frisson was some sort of dog. I guess it would be capitalized. I think it is even funnier when I run across words that I’ve been mispronouncing because I’ve only read them. “Indict” was the most embarrassing of all. I was a Russian Linguist in the Army, so I dig languages. I love that languages are living entities that change with culture, politics and history. Although I could certainly do without the 2011 Merriam-Webster additions of bromance, cougar, robocall and tweet. Ugh. Sometimes our culture is embarrassing.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I poked around, but couldn’t find a dog breed with that name. There is a Bichon Frise breed. They’re notable for being (fairly) hypoallergenic. I had a one-time date with someone who had one. She said the hypoallergenic nature was due to the dog having “hair” (like a human) rather than “fur,” but the Wiki article says nothing about that. [shrug]

      But my searching for the dog did turn up an interesting blog article by Roger Ebert. It’s from 2010 and is about how the interweb feeds our addiction to frisson, about how the interweb may be re-wiring our brains. That’s a subject of interest to me; one I’ve mentioned before (touched on briefly in this very article!) and no doubt will again!

      Totally with ya on the neologisms there. We’re clearly in transition… I worry about where we’re headed!

      • thegreenstudy

        Bleu Frisson or Frisson Bleu is some sort of dog but my search didn’t turn up much info – just some pics. Must not be a well-known breed. Okay, I may have gone a little OCD on this!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think I found some of those same pages. As far as I could tell, Bleu Frisson seemed to be someone’s name; I think it was the dog’s name. [shrug]

        I know that OCD feeling!! It’s a tendency I usually can channel into my coding work (where it’s actually a benefit). But every once in a while it escapes into my personal life.

  • linguischtick

    Could you give an example of some specific instance where you think that English has “devolved”? I ask as professional linguist 🙂 I don’t really understand the view that change is bad, So maybe an example would make it more clear.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, keep in mind that the tale is about how my view on this changed, but what I had in mind at the time was things like how the distinction between you’re and your is being lost (or they’re, their and there). Also how proper use of the apostrophe is being lost. To my perception, it’s not just a matter of ignorance, but a matter of truly not caring, of wanting not to know. Language use seems to be becoming more contextual.

      The reply I mentioned, “You understood what I meant, didn’t you?” seems to excuse the compression of formerly distinct differences into a simplified grammar. That simplification, to me, removes the ability to deal with shades of meaning, to be precise, to be elegant. It is the difference between an orchestra and a three-piece band.

      I also had in mind things like OMG and LOL that, by removing the actual words, remove the real meanings behind the original phrases.

      Also how that contextualization creates sub-dialects where meaning is opaque to outsiders. As a means of identity, it’s one thing, but if the ability to use standard English is lost, then the ability to communicate outside the group is also lost.

      Since I hold communication as one of the higher human traits, the loss of it seems tragic to me.

  • reocochran

    I was going to say that when we change the way we think on a subject we have a paradigm shift. Which combines what one of your commenters said and what you were saying.

    But I also agree that we sometimes do have educated writers and journalist “dumb down” the language and I wish instead they would speak above our heads to possibly enlighten us and society as a whole!

    My mother loved Jay Leno because one of his first things he brought onto his show was “send me examples of how language is inappropriately used.” She sent him an article with some misrepresentations written by a Cleveland, Ohio journalist and he rewarded her with a signed picture of himself. I have it framed amongst other famous people along the way in my family’s life.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Cool!! And I love that “from the headlines” bit he does. I usually watch Letterman (if I watch at all, which isn’t common these days), but if Jay is doing that bit, I switch over!

      There’s a blogger on WordPress, Terribly Write, whose entire blog consists of going after grammar and spelling errors made by Yahoo! And she never seems to lack for material!

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