“Literal Meanings”

The other day, Slate magazine posted a map titled “Literal Meanings of Places in the US.”  It’s a fun graphic, I recommend it, but I will also mention a couple of caveats.  These caveats may be obvious in themselves, but perhaps I can express them in a way that will suggest interesting thoughts.

First, what is the “literal meaning” of a name?  When I think of that phrase, I ask two questions.  First, is the name likely to bring that meaning to the minds of most of the people who are likely to hear it?  And second, can the name be used independently to signify that meaning?  For example, the name “Newfoundland” likely brings to the minds of most English speakers, not only the place Newfoundland and the breed of dogs named after it, but also the idea that a land has been newly found.  With just a little typographical liberty, we can refer to places other than Newfoundland as new-found lands.  So I don’t object to saying that new-found land is the “literal meaning” of Newfoundland.

What we see on this map are not, in that sense, the “literal meanings” of North American place names.  They are etymological meanings, that is to say, meanings that have, at one time or another, been associated with words that have influenced the development of those names.  For example, “New York” is supposed to “literally mean” “New Yew-Tree Village.”  When the Latinism Eboracum was coined sometime before the year 95 of our era it probably represented an attempt to spell in Roman letters a Celtic word that meant “Place of the Yew Trees.”   And Eboracum, evolving in tandem with that Celtic word, changed its pronunciation over the centuries to become “York.”  But of course only scholars hear the word “York” and think “Place of the Yew Trees.” And by the time the word came to be pronounced “York” it was centuries past any connection with yew trees.  I suspect that no one has ever looked at a place of yew trees and called it a “York.”

I think it would be reasonable to imagine the history of a word as something like an archaeological site, in which collections of material from different periods of history can be found concentrated on on top of another.  So, two thousand years ago, Eboracum and its Celtic root may have meant “Place of the Yew Trees” to most of the people concerned with settlements in the far northeast of Roman Britannia.

At a a higher stratum, that is to say, a later period, very different meanings are associated with the word.  The acts of the British crown which created the Province of New York in 1664, 1665, and 1674 and thus introduced the name “New York” into the English language were executed by a king who was not only ignorant of the Celtic etymology of the name “York,” but who was not likely giving much thought to the city of that name.  The province was created under the patronage of the king’s brother, the Duke of York, and was named for him.  That nobleman later became King James II of England and VII of Scotland, the last of the Stuart dynasty.  James was York by title, but doesn’t seem to have been greatly involved with the city or its affairs, and he never visited the North American territory claimed in his name.  It is as if we found that someplace named New Newfoundland was named, not for Newfoundland, but for a particular dog of the Newfoundland breed.  At that point, the etymology of the name might have been glossed as something like “James’ new province,” or, considering James’ awkward position within the royal house in 1664, “We still care about you, James.”

If we dig further down to an earlier period, the root word might have meant something quite different.  Various Celtic languages include words similar to Eboracum that refer to various trees; perhaps the root of those words meant something other than “yew tree.”  It is possible that Phoenician merchants, whom we know to have been active in Cornwall and southern Ireland in Roman times, brought with them a word cognate with the Coptic ebu, “ivory,” and its Latin derivative ebor, eboris, and that this word was the base of those Celtic words.  This may not be a particularly likely etymology, but I have never been one to miss an opportunity to bring up the Phoenicians.

A second point enters in with glosses like “of the monks” for Des Moines, Iowa.  This appears to be a folk etymology that white settlers applied to mooyiinkweena, a name that the Peoria people used for certain neighbors of theirs.  The opinion the Peoria had of those neighbors can be surmised from the fact that the parts of the word mooyiinkweena appear to be mooy, meaning “dung,” and iinkwee, meaning “face.”  So, when they pointed at the site where Des Moines now stands and said mooyiinkweena, they were telling the whites that the people who lived there were shit-faces.  I should add that the erudite sources I link to above are not where I first learned the etymology of “Des Moines”; I first saw it last week on Cracked.

Originally, the folk etymology of Des Moines might have been a mistake.  But words mean what people use them to mean, not what they are supposed to mean.  If Des Moines residents and others who are concerned with the city have thought that the meaning “of the monks” is part of the name’s history, then it is part of that history.   And the fact that the name is now “Des Moines” rather than “Mooyiinkweena” is an example of the role that the folk etymology plays in that history.  Therefore, a map listing etymological meanings of North American place names would have to include both “of the monks” and “shit-faces” for Des Moines.   To return to the image of an etymology as an archaeological site stratified into layers, we might think of a three-dimensional map, on which both the geographic location of the places and the temporal development of the names’ meanings could be represented.

Even the two-dimensional map on Slate must be the result of a great deal of work; a three-dimensional map would require a great deal of drudgery, and even then it would be a severe oversimplification.  So I mention it only to illustrate the point, not to find fault with the map or to take back my recommendation that everyone look at it.

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What they could never kill went on to organize

By now I suppose everyone knows about “Prism,” the massive program of eavesdropping that the National Security Agency has been carrying out for a number of years.  Many have asked what it means for our freedoms that the NSA is listening to all our phone calls, reading all our emails, etc.  The question fewer people seem to be thinking about is just who the people are at the NSA who are doing those things.

The NSA is famously an outgrowth of US military intelligence.  Its top leaders are senior military officers, and much of its staff is also drawn from the uniformed services.  However, the total number of active duty personnel in the US military is something less than 1.5 million.  Only a minority of that rather small group would be in a position to develop the skills and obtain the security clearance required for assignment to a project like Prism.  And that same minority would be in demand wherever the US military is tasked with a complex and dangerous operation.  So it seems unlikely that the NSA would have enough military employees to sift through everyone’s personal communications.

So, most of the work of Prism must be in the hands of civilians, employed either by the Department of Defense or by private contractors.  Those people, unlike their uniformed coworkers, are eligible to form unions and demand collective bargaining.  So, if you want to give the NSA’s bosses an incentive to tell their people to stop reading your communications, fill all of them with the case for organized labor.  Granted, that won’t take away the rest of the incentives that have motivated US authorities to create and maintain this system and the US public to accept it, but at least it’s something.

The only beliefs likely to survive rational scrutiny are those formed in response to rational scrutiny

Maybe it is possible to categorize the set of a person’s beliefs by the importance that person attaches to each of those beliefs.  If we visualize a person’s collection of beliefs as a sphere, we might imagine a solid core consisting of beliefs to which the person attaches great importance, a loose periphery of beliefs to which the person attaches very little importance, and various layers in between.  Over time beliefs would of course shift from one layer to another, so that a belief held only tentatively under one set of circumstances might take on great significance under another set of circumstances.

layers 4For example, if I am walking through an unfamiliar part of town, the shape and color of the buildings may not be of any great interest to me.  If in that case I were to be asked to describe a building I had passed a few minutes before, I might not be surprised or bothered to be told that my description was in error.  My impressions of the details of any given building’s appearance might be very tentative, formed only incidentally as I walk along paying attention to the street signs and to features of greater interest.  However, if I lost my way and were trying to use those same buildings as landmarks, my ability to describe the buildings would have a direct bearing on my ability to find my way.  While I might not care about the buildings for their own sake, I certainly care about that task, and would therefore have a stake in my beliefs about their appearance.

Contact with other people of course has an effect on the movement of beliefs from one layer of significance to another.  Contact with an appealing person or group of people who represent a challenge to an idea in or near the core might pull that idea up towards the loose periphery of tentative beliefs, while contact with a hostile person who attacks a peripheral belief might drive that belief down towards or into the core.  So, a religious believer who at one time regards it as a core principle of his or her identity that only the practices of his or her religion can make a person virtuous may come to put less emphasis on that belief after meeting and beginning to like a number of apparently virtuous people who do not follow those practices.  Conversely, a person who has chosen one candidate for public office over another in the belief that his or her preferred candidate was the slightly better choice may very quickly begin to behave as if the difference between the two candidates was of immense moral significance if some obnoxious person confronts him or her with a demand that s/he shift his or her allegiance to the other one.

A striking example of this latter process took place in my living room some time ago.  Mrs Acilius and I were watching a television program in which singers competed for the votes of the text-messaging public.  Mrs A had been watching the program from its first installment months before, I was watching it for the first time on the night the winner was announced.  As they played the two finalists’ previous performances, I said that the female singer seemed much better than her male antagonist.  Mrs A agreed that she was the better singer and said that she had voted for her, but insisted that the difference between them was really very slight.  “They’ve just chosen better clips from her performances than from his,” she explained.  “I wouldn’t be at all upset if he won, he’s almost as good as she is.  I want to buy some of his music, as much as of hers.”  The male singer did win.  Mrs A’s immediate response?  “How the %$&# did that happen!?  She was so much better!”  Well, I said, I suppose more people voted for him, and– “People voted for Hitler, too!”  So in about fifteen seconds, the man went from being virtually as good as the other singer to being Hitler.  When I pointed this out to Mrs A, she burst out laughing.  Her belief that the female singer was the better choice floated back up towards the peripheral layer of her tentative, relatively unimportant beliefs.

While beliefs can shift from one layer of importance to another, they often stay at one level for long periods of time.  Beliefs about religion, politics, sexuality, economics, and other matters touching group identity and kinship structures tend to cluster at the core, while beliefs that do not have any obvious bearing on one’s social position or on any task one is attempting to perform tend to remain in the periphery.  It strikes me that this has implications for the concept of rationality.  What sorts of ideas are subjected to rational scrutiny?  Ideas in the periphery are too unimportant to subject to sustained analysis, unless one is a student in a humanities course looking for a paper topic.  On the other hand, ideas in the core are too important to subject to sustained analysis.  Challenging them brings discomfort and makes enemies.  Only a powerful incentive can ensure that a person will test them thoroughly, and even then defensive bias can be expected to enter in at every point unless one is guided by the most robust methodological constraints.

Of course, there may be times when one takes a perverse pleasure in experiencing discomfort and enmity.  I think of an old friend of mine whose second favorite activity is the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church, its hierarchy, its doctrines, and its practices.  The only thing to which she devotes more energy than her jeremiads against the Roman Catholic Church is participation in her local Roman Catholic parish, of which she has long been one of the mainstays.  Clearly the denunciations and the devotions are two parts of the same complex of behavior, though how exactly that complex fits together I cannot say.

There are also times when people take pleasure in inflicting discomfort on others and displaying enmity towards them.  At those times, a critic of core beliefs might show both an aggressive bias in treating the beliefs that are explicitly under attack and defensive bias in an attempt to preserve other beliefs, even beliefs that are closely related to them.  We often see this in debates between political partisans or religious sectarians who seem to each other to be separated by vast ideological gulfs, while outsiders find the differences between them incomprehensibly subtle.  I confess to having spent a significant amount of time during the 2012 US presidential campaign listening to supporters of the two chief candidates explain in all earnestness that the health insurance reform one of them had sponsored as governor of Massachusetts was in reality profoundly different from the health insurance reform the other had signed as president, despite all appearances to the contrary.  I did my best to avoid probing into this topic when in conversation with committed partisans on either side, and every time I failed to express solemn agreement with their talking points I elicited a flash of real anger that I only made worse by laughing in their faces.

layers 2

Between “Don’t Care” and “Don’t Dare”

Rational scrutiny, then, is something that takes place mostly in the intermediate layers between the core and the periphery.  This suggests a troubling reflection.  The history of philosophy, the history of art, the history of science, all suggest that the only beliefs likely to survive rational scrutiny are those formed in response to rational scrutiny.  Even a belief supported by such compelling evidence as the belief that the Sun, the stars, and the planets revolve around the Earth eventually collapsed when it was subjected to examination.  If neither the beliefs in the core nor those in the periphery are regularly challenged, then it is only in the intermediate layers, between the outer periphery of beliefs we do not care about sufficiently to challenge them and the inner core of beliefs that we do not dare to challenge, that we can expect any significant percentage of our ideas to be capable of withstanding rational scrutiny.

This may explain why descriptions of rationality so often tend to drift into discussions of problem-solving, even among people who theoretically disagree with thinkers like Max Weber or the pragmatists who would identify rationality with problem-solving.  Our intermediate-importance beliefs tend to be those which we use in performing specific tasks.  So most rational scrutiny takes place among these beliefs, and in the course of problem-solving.  That in turn may go some distance towards explaining the popularity of ideas which depict rationality and emotion as so deeply opposed to each other that any high level of attainment in abstract reasoning is to be taken as evidence of emotional immaturity, and vice versa. 

Indeed, such ideas are so widely taken for granted that it may seem odd to suggest that their popularity needs explaining.  To me it has always seemed odd that our culture posits such a stark opposition between reasoning and feeling.  It is as if we all regarded it as a self-evident truth that there is a war between hands and feet, and that anyone who has exceptional manual dexterity must on that account have difficulty walking, or that any accomplished dancer must be at a loss when called upon to make use of his or her hands.   Regarding hands and feet, the opposite is of course more nearly true.  The more adept one is in using any part of the body, the less distracting that part will tend to be when trying to use another part.  Surely it is the same with emotions and reasoning, other things being equal.  The more mature and integrated one’s emotional state, the wider the range of topics about which one can reason calmly for sustained periods; the more experience one has using reason rigorously, the narrower the range of unfamiliar ideas that are likely to prompt one to seize up with panic.  So why do we assume that expert reasoners must be emotionless automatons, or that deeply happy people must live by pure feeling, not sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought?

That rational scrutiny, in practice, is confined for the most part to a rather narrow band of ideas might explain why it is so commonplace to draw this absurdly stark opposition.   To subject ideas to rational scrutiny seems to imply that they are neither core beliefs, which because of their sensitivity must be exempt from such criticism, or tentative impressions, which because of their triviality do not merit such serious attention.  To set no bounds to rational inquiry may therefore seem to suggest that one has no core beliefs, no tentative impressions, and indeed no sense of proportion whatever.  It is difficult to see how a person of that sort  would be able to empathize with others, and if one had chosen to become such a person it would be reasonable to suspect that one was hiding from some sort of deep pain.  However, that suggestion need not be accurate.  One can have a strong sense of proportion while numbering among one’s core beliefs the conviction that rational scrutiny is of sufficient value that any belief might be subject to it.  Training in philosophy, the arts, science, or any of a number of fields might underpin such a conviction.  Living in accord with that conviction can be a sign, not of perversity or hostility, but of courage.