And now, a little ranting…

You do it to yourself/you do/and that’s why it really hurts/you do it to yourself/just you/you and no one else…

-Radiohead

I recently received a few response papers back with comments. Now I know it’s taboo to talk about comments from an instructor to a graduate student, as all of that is supposed to be kept under wraps, but two things came up. They were “term” corrections.

One was when I said “America” which prompted “Do you mean The United States?”

Another was when I said “Native American” and was told “American Indian.”

Mundane things, right? Yeah… not earth shattering. I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over such “errors,” nor do I feel particularly slighted. But… it reminded me of a presentation I gave last semester on John Locke. The philosopher, not the awesome bald dude from LOST.

Locke had a lot to say for politicians and for other social scientists, but for rhetoric, his grand contribution is his sense of language. Now I’ve been told by some that I’m not reading Locke right, so feel free to slam me in response (as if you’d hold back had I not given you permission! :)), but this is what I took away from Locke’s work as being important.

We have words, in our language. We seek, through those words, to express things to each other. But our words lack precision, and our attempts to say things in attractive– or high minded– ways often clouds understanding. As academics we might be the worst offenders of all. We say “heuristic” when we could say “tool” in many cases. We claim something is “structural linguistics” when no one needed to know. We pontificate upon how something has “concrecience” (did I spell that right, Dr. Latour?) or is “polemic.”

Clarity, Locke claimed, would lead us to much easier communication. And to get to that clarity, we had to know what words mean.

Right now I’m having a word war with my own mind over the term “practice.” I know what it means… generally. I also know that in high school I went to both basketball and speech team practice. I know that David E. Kelly wrote a fantastic TV program called The Practice. I know that practice makes perfect. I know that De Certeau is concerned with The Practice of Everyday Life. 🙂 But when we talk about practices… what do we mean?

The answer– which I find maddening– is that it varies wildly from scholar to scholar.

Which is why it’s funny that “America” and “United States” didn’t parse across a set of two academics.

I think Locke was being idealistic (and that he had lots of other problems), but I’m thinking that the desire to have clear, concise language might be the smartest thing anyone ever asked for.

Or as my tenth grade honors English teacher said, “Phill, brevity is the soul of wit. You witless punk.”

 

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