Thursday, April 30, 2009


This is a petty post about words. Watch the bold ones, and we'll talk about them after storytime.

"It's hubris on his part!" Dean Muffinbottom belted out after reading the first paragraph of Associate Professor Tootsyboots' long-awaited essay on the impossibility of a Heideggerian hermeneutic.

"I beg to differ, good sir!" protested Miss Flouncy, a promising young grad student with an eye for up and coming concrete poets. "Dr. Tootsyboots is the vanguard of progressive interpretation. He would only be hostile toward Heidegger if he had good reason to be! Read on, please?"

"Well, all right Miss Flouncy. But I hav
e a stack of papers that need grades. Why don't you get right on those, and I'll give this upstart Tootsyboots a second read here." He then turned his gaze toward the motley pile of midterm papers under the tiny stained-glass office window. Miss Flouncy obligingly bent over to pick up the stack and he did not look away.

"Right on it, sir." She stood up and straightened herself, on the way out spouting, "And thank you for giving that essay another look. Bootsykins -- I
mean -- Dr. Tootsyboots and I spent a semester on the research alone. I think you'll find his theory is quite robust, once you get past page fourteen..."

"Yes, yes. I'm sure. But if I have to see the word 'reification' one more time, this paper is going in the rubbish bin!" he called after her.

Miss Flouncy hefted the dogeared and smelly undergrad papers down the hallway to her favorite grading table, wincing at at least eleven paper cuts and fearing Dean Muffinbottom's next outburst, as he was sure to find
that word on at least eleven more pages. She plopped into the creaky hall chair, untucked her red pen from behind her ear, and began to squelch her worries with some excellentlly bad freshman prose.

Regardless of what you think of my ridiculous and romantic portrayal of academic life, I said pay attention to the bold words remember? Sorry for the indulgence in silly fiction. I have been prosing all semester.

With the exception of hostile, which I will explain later, all of the words in bold are words that I had no idea what they meant when I first heard them used out loud or first heard them in this kind of context. I had not read them anywhere except someone like Derrida (where I first saw hermeneutics), and had not yet bothered to find out what the heck they mean. Usually an encounter with a new word is exciting for me, and I scramble to decipher it. But for some reason, when I first encountered these words they just pissed me off!

Ok, this is going to sound totally backwards and hypocritical because I just made fun of the smelly undergraduate students (a class which I am still a member of, though I think I'm well past the smelly years...). I couldn't stand these words because I thought they sounded terribly high brow and pretentious. This was probably just my own sticking-out-of-tonguedness (This is a perfectly acceptable word! See "dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morningness" in the OED. F'n' amazing.) at not understanding the words myself. But then I began to notice how often people used these words. Everyone has their favorites, and it seemed like they just latched onto them, either because they had just learned the words themselves (probably not the case with professors) or because they just liked the word for some reason.

The first instance of each word down there links to the Wiki defintion or Wiki page, because I'm not going to write all that out. I would so love to point you to the OED, but I'm chillin' public library style tonight. They are unapologetic about their lack of access to such databases. Here's how I found the words:

Vanguard and Robust: A professor of philosophy visited my school to talk about Hegel and Bergson and their writings on humor. He used the word vanguard about a thousand times. I could kind of get the meaning from the context, but it just seemed like such a weird word to use for dead philosophers. He also called every good theory a robust one. I had heard robust used to describe very "sturdy" scientific studies, but not for a philosophy. I've heard it a lot more (or at least noticed it more) all around lately, but vanguard is still a weird one to me. The professor was a great guy and had a lot of cool insights about Hegel, plus he was very animated and fun to watch lecture. I just got hung up on his repeated vocabulary. And I noticed that my professor was soon professing with the same vocabulary, for at least a week afterward. These things are infectious.

Hubris: I have heard this one bantered around for awhile now, mostly by philosophy professors and students. I started using it occasionally myself, but only when it truly applies. Actually that's a lie. I use it to be funny more often than I actually apply it to someone. I used it in an introduction to a paper, but I'm not sure if the prof got the joke. Anyhow, when I first started hearing it a lot, it just made me think of how the word means, in a way, that someone is too big for their britches, but the word is most often used by people who are already spilling right out of their britches, so to speak. It's a problematic word, because as soon as you call someone hubristic, you've become a little more hubristic yourself! It is best used ironically, but this is also quite dangerous.

Hostile: Everyone knows what hostile means, but I thought it was funny the first few times I heard it with regard to thinkers and writers and their feelings about one another. I though they were getting into fist-fights in the salons or something. Eventually I heard it applied to someone who was not alive at the time the "hostile" individual was writing about him, and I understood it to mean that the hostile person is making a point of dismissing the other person's arguments. A thinker can even be hostile toward someone who influences him! It's more about the way he treats the other dude's arguments than how he feels about him personally. It still makes me laugh though, because Marx actually has a line in his "Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of State" where he talks about philosophy in praxis, and says something about punching your opponent in the face with your theories. He is hilarious. I've read a thousand pages of him this semester and I still think he's hilarious. You know he was a stud when he was young -- he really should have thought twice about that beard...

Reification: I've directed this one to the Wiki page so you can enjoy the "disambiguation" of reification. What a mess! This word has completely unrelated meanings in different fields. Since I am in a political philosophy class and an aesthetics class this semester, I have seen the Marxist form of gettin' reified and the Heideggerian form of thingliness through gettin' reified. I'm trying to learn how to use this one because it's such a doosey, but when I hear or see it in too many places it really pisses me off. Over and over, we reify. There must be some other way to put it.

Hermeneutics: Ha! Here's the real doosey. I might need a couple paragraphs. (Knuckle crack.) I know several...well...two non-professor people with a strong command of this word, but I know twice as many who have no idea what it means, yet they proceed to sprinkle it in the most unlikely conversations. "Ah yes, the hermeneutics of this beer bottle collection..." "Well, you make a good case for buying that pair of shoes, but I think an appeal to hermeneutics is in order here." Actually no one I know uses it that freely. In fact, if I was surrounded by that I'd probably be pretty happy! But still, in the real conversations about philosophy etc, where hermeneutics rears its confusing head, it is often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Anyhow, it's a pretty broad word, so you could properly use it in a lot of places without knowing what the heck it means, if that's the kind of person you'd like to be. But that would be violating a pretty important Gricean Maxim of felicitous communication -- "avoid unnecessary prolixity" (which is a funny joke in itself). Personally, I don't use it (yet!) because I don't want to use it wrong. But again, I don't mind when people who know how to handle a hermeneutic whip theirs out.

Finally, this is, like reification, one of the few words I know but haven't mastered (see, my hubris is showing), so that is probably my source of sometime disgust with it.

For all you who read this and know and use these words, carry on! For those of you who use them all the time but haven't quite learned what they mean, please don't take this personally. I'm trying to get a handle on them myself. Ambivalence seems to be my mode of the week.

"Oh la la la la! Zees Hermeneutic, she is all wrong! I must reify her, maintenant!"


  1. Robyn!!

    My linguistics professor has decided to be rather late posting this weekend's reading, so I decided to zip on by to your blog before hunkering down to work. By the way, garden path sentences are evil! Evil I say!! Hahahaha! They have driven me mad!

    Sorry, I didn't sleep much last night :-p Onto the blog...

    AH! Big words make brain hurt! I must say, I do love the names of your characters. It reminded me of a M*A*S*H episode where Frank was trying to teach English to some Korean people and then Hawkeye came in and says, "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy." But he says it so fast it sounds like, "Maresi does and doesi dos and littly lambsi divi". Anyway, that's just my weird brain.

    I loved that little scene of academic life. It had me laughing through the whole thing.

    Heehee, this blog entry reminds me of the first months that my mentor and I were working together. He'd have to stop every other word because I'd get this horrified blank look on my face. He used the biggest words I'd ever heard before and I had this weird deer-in-headlights syndrome going on. Just thinking about it is cracking me up. Whatever word I didn't know, he'd actually quiz me on. I'd leave the meeting knowing not only the definition but also the origin of the word.

    Ah yes, falling in love with words. There have been a few, most of which turned out to be archaic, that I had to edit out of my work. I'm like you, though. I hate it when people use words just to show off what they think is a large vocabulary. It's so bloody obvious when they do it too. See my many rants about the guy with the Japanese fetish in my linguistics class ;-)

    Huh, I always thought robust was a culinary term.

    AH HA! I know hubris! Or at least I've heard it before.

    Hostile has been forever ruined for me after that damn torture porn movie a few years back. Yes, I know the title was referring to a "Hostel", but still.

    I feel like a dunce. I haven't heard more then half these words before.

    I was on the floor laughing at your, eh hem, personification of the word "hermeneutic". We should all have a word that we can whip out ;-D

    That picture, and the caption beneath it, was an awesome way to end a very entertaining entry.

    Onwards, my vocabularily gifted friend! Sorry about that invented word, by the way. I couldn't help myself.

  2. My head is spinning from reading this! Yowza!


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.