Nothing about everything

A few posts ago, talking about the way quotations are (mis-)attributed to people, I said:

Sometimes, an idea is stated in different ways before someone creates the most-quoted form of it, so it’s hard to say who should get the credit.

I have been thinking about the quotation, in probably its most familiar form:

A specialist knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. A generalist knows less and less and more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

Quote Investigator traces the quotation from the first attested “We are getting to know more and more about less and less” (reported as the saying of “a distinguished Scotsman”) to various expanded forms. The exact originator depends on which exact form you use.

I am definitely a generalist. Although my blog posts are mostly about language(s) and (because I’ve most recently studied linguistics and been working as an ESL teacher and/or magazine or legal editor during this time), I’ve also posted about music (my first study), geography/travel/tourism, science/maths, history, bible study/theology and photography (my dabbles) (and probably more). If I had set out to be more general in my blog posts, I might have named it Nothing about everything. In fact, there are blogs with titles very close to that, and the Urban Dictionary has:

a genre of blogs in which the content means everything to the author but nothing to most everyone else; often abbreviated as “e/n”

(I wouldn’t say that the content of this blog means everything to me, but obviously I put some time and effort into it.)

The main reason I’ve been thinking about this quotation recently is that I’ve had a burst on inquiring about PhD study (again), and one of the problems is that PhD study is expected to be specialised; maybe one particular aspect of one particular language. I’m just not interested in spending four to six years of my life doing that. Unfortunately, universities don’t seem to give PhDs in general studies. Universities expect me to know what I will find by my research. I thought the point of research is not knowing what I will find.

Realistically, this study is less likely to happen, but I need to find out for sure. I might be able to do the same research as an armchair scholar, but there’s less incentive, mostly because there would be less (if any) recognition at the end.

PS WIkipedia has a page about misquotations/misattributions.


Who said what?

Following on from my last post about quotations, it seems to me that quotations by famous authors fall into three categories. The first is things they say or write as themselves. The second is things they write as the authorial voice of a literary work. The third is things they put into the mouths of their characters. We presume that what they say or write as themselves is their true opinion. For example, Jane Austen said or wrote “I am going to take a heroine [Emma] whom no one but myself will much like”. What they write as the authorial voice may or may not be their own opinion. Austen wrote “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. Did she believe that, or was she satirising people like Mrs Bennett? Austen then has Mr Collins say “The death of your daughter [Lydia] would have been a blessing in comparison of this [her eloping with Wickham and now living with him unmarried]”. Did she believe that, or was she satirising people like Mr Collins?

For some authors, the line is blurred. George Orwell and Ayn Rand are famous for putting their opinions into their authorial voice and the mouths of their characters. Comedians often have a comic persona called “I” who may or may not believe the same things the comedian does – Rodney Dangerfield and Stephen Colbert spring to mind. For others, attributing the words of the character to the author is or could be seriously misleading. Charles Schulz is often quoted as saying “I’ve developed a new philosophy. I only dread one day at a time!” But that was actually said by Charlie Brown. He is also quoted as saying “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia”. Schulz may or may not have believed that, but the actual exchange in the strip is:

Charlie Brown: I heard him [“that speaker”] say the world is coming to an end …
Peppermint Pattie: Marcie said the world can’t end today because it’s already tomorrow in Australia.

Schulz may have recycled the idea in the more familiar form later.

There are times when an author puts into the mouth of a character something she or he doesn’t believe. Oscar Wilde has the Duchess of Berwick in Lady Windermere’s Fan say “Australia … must be so pretty with all the dear little kangaroos flying about.” I am certain that Wilde did not believe that. 

Behind every (great/successful) quotation is a mis-attribution

A Facebook friend shared the following:

Winston Churchill loved paraprosdokians, figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected.

1. Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on my list.
3. Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
4. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
5. War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
6. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
7. They begin the evening news with ‘Good Evening,’ then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.
8. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
9. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out, I just wanted pay checks.
10. In filling out an application, where it says, ‘In case of emergency, notify:’ I put “DOCTOR.”
11. I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
12. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street…with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.
13. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.
14. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.
15. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
16. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
17. There’s a fine line between cuddling and…holding someone down so they can’t get away.
18. I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.
19. You’re never too old to learn something stupid.
20. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
21. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
22. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
23. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
24. I’m supposed to respect my elders, but now it’s getting harder and harder for me to find one.

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Weather we like it or not

We are having an above averagely wet summer, which is actually preferable to the above averagely hot with extensive bushfires summer we had last year. Today was the first day back at work for some of us. I generally keep an eye on the rain radar website and tell my colleagues what’s likely to happen. (We are currently mostly working at our respective homes, spread across the metropolitan area.) Today was forecast for rain and a possible storm in the afternoon, so I informed my Sydney colleague of this. He thanked me and added “I was wondering weather …”

This reminded me of a little poem one of my grandmothers taught me when I was young:

Whether the weather be cold, or whether the weather be hot,
Whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not,
We’ll whether the weather, whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not.

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“We will smash them like guitars”

Australians are reliving the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, which ran from 15 September to 1 October 2000. One story which was quite notorious at the time and which has featured in the media recently involves the US swimmer Gary Hall Jr. He was widely quoted as saying that “we [the US 4 x 100m freestyle relay team] will smash them [the Australian team] like guitars”. There were, and are, two problems with that quotation. The first is what happened actually on the night of 16 September 2000:

The second is the way that the Australian media quoted, and still quote, what Hall wrote, which was actually: “My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won’t be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time.”

“My biased opinion” and “it won’t be so easy to dominate” give him just enough wriggle room. It was his biased opinion, and it wasn’t so easy.

Quotations need to be concise, but it is easy and often tempting to select and present portions of a quotation which give a distorted meaning, or even the opposite meaning.

What can I remember?

At my first English language college in Australia (approximately 10 years ago) the classes joined together for the last lesson on Fridays and watched a movie. There was meant to be some educational value but I was sometimes a bit worried about choices of the colleague who usually chose the movie.

One such movie was Bad Boys, starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. There is genuine linguistic point in the use of African American Vernacular English, but that probably would have been lost on the students. At one point the two police seek information from a reluctant informer. I always remembered him saying “I don’t know everything about everything, but I do know some things about some things”. I was going to use that as a tagline for this blog, but didn’t want to quote anything I wasn’t 100% sure of. 

Recently, I thought to look at Wikiquote’s page for the movie, which records him as saying “I don’t know everything. I only know a little bit”. So there goes that one.

At one choir camp – if my fragment of a memory serves me correctly, in 1991 – we sang a choral piece which included the words “inextricably rooted”, which has an unfortunate double meaning for a speaker of Australian English, in which root can mean to engage in sexual intercourse (with) or damage or destroy, and rooted has related meanings. I thought “Surely that’s got to be somewhere on the internet”. Apparently not. There are occurrences of “inextricably rooted”, but seemingly none related to poetry or choral music. But the fact that the internet doesn’t record something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

So am I misremembering or not? It is a simple matter to find the first example – find the DVD in and shop, or the movie online, and skip to that point. To find the second example, I don’t have to search every piece of choral music – I’m sure that the poem was secular and that the composer was a 20th century American. If I am misremembering, then of course I will never find it, but I might find something very similar to it.

I mentioned “inextricably rooted” briefly in a major international linguistics forum, and no-one has said “Oh, that’s [this poem] by [that poet]”.

You never know what you’re gonna get

The free sample today was a product of mini jelly beans in 10 colours and 20 flavours, each colour being either a delicious one or an utterly disgusting one. There’s no way of telling which is which. Before Forrest Gump’s mother’s box of chocolates, Excalibur’s  Merlin said “Looking at the cake is like looking at the future, until you’ve tasted it what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late.“

The pairs are:
Caramel Corn and Mouldy Cheese
Strawberry Banana Smoothie and Dead Fish
Ba-na-na and Pencil Shavings
Juicy Pear and Booger
Buttered Popcorn and Rotten Eggs
Chocolate Pudding and Canned Dog Food
Futti-Frutti and Stinky Socks
Coconut and Baby Wipes
Green Apple and Minion Fart
Peach and Barf

(You decide which are meant to be the delicious ones and which ones the utterly disgusting.) Continue reading

“I taste self but at”

Some linguistic explorations get more puzzling the further I pursue them.  Today’s lesson was about the pattern NP look(s)/sound(s)/smell(s)/taste(s)/feel(s) ADJ and related patterns. The lesson started with look, with photos of actors in emoting in character. Sound was provided on the textbook’s CD, and I explained smell and taste with examples of food (both) and perfume (smell). I mentioned that we might say You smell beautiful to a loved one, but are unlikely to say You taste beautiful even then.

Except some people do. Google Ngrams shows You taste good/wonderful/salty/sweet/delicious/better, all of which emerged in the 1960s and 70s. You taste better, not surprisingly, leads to You taste better than, but Ngrams gives no result for You taste better than *. I am trying to think how I could end a sentence with those words: maybe Here is a list of things you taste better than. Continue reading