This place matters

This place matters

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Internet said it, it must be true!

I've been reading lots of books on language and linguistics lately, and I'm coming to notice that the authors of these books spend a whole lot of time quoting each other. At one point in Roy Blount Jr.'s "Alphabet Juice," he quotes Stephen Pinker ("The Language Instinct") quoting Zinsser ("On Writing Well"). At least I think he does. It was all getting a bit too much like a game of telephone, and I was sleepy.

It struck me as quite funny to wonder if one of the dudes in the chain of books on writing guys could just be making all this crap up. Like if Bill Bryson regularly gets drunk, makes up crazy crap, shoves it into the log flume, and the next thing you know, Pinker's using Bryson, and McWhorter's using Pinker, and Bob's your uncle, Bill Bryson has conned the world into believing there's a city in Kentucky called Sugar Tit. Oh wait, there is a city called Sugar Tit? My bad, Bryson. But I've got my eye on you - you know far too much on too many subjects to be trustworthy.

I thought of this, because back in high school, I dated "The Liar." Everybody knows this guy. The dude who just makes crap up for absolutely no reason. Like he'd tell me he'd had eggs for breakfast when in fact, he'd had toast. Seriously, what made him decide to tell me his middle name was Sebastian when it wasn't? So That Guy, I've just discovered, has written an obscure academic text. If he's still, in fact, That Guy, he could be reinventing truth as we speak. Some academic somewhere takes a quote, sites it in her own academic text (Guy, That p. 457), and the next thing you know, Bill Bryson's written a smash hit book on that corner of academia all filled with That Guy's senseless factoids. Note: Those of us who know who That Guy is aren't going to name names.

An interesting factoid, by the way about the word factoid. We usually use it to mean "bit of trivia," but when Norman Mailer coined the term, he defined it as a false or baseless assertion, stated as fact - a factoid is a fact like a humanoid is a human. But since I've called this fact a factoid, perhaps Norman Mailer didn't invent the term, and a factoid really is a bit of trivia. If a factoid is a bit of trivia, then it IS true that Norman Mailer coined the term to mean a false or baseless assertion. See? Truth reinvented. This is some deep shit.

A flower-oid to go with your factoids.


disheah said...

I think there was a scandal awhile ago where several academic historians reviewed high school history books and found that almost all of them contained errors, and quite a few of the errors were very serious (like "country on the wrong side of WW2" serious). Richard Feynman (famous mathematician and physicist) also wrote a very damning account of the time that he was on a committee to review school textbooks. The gist of it is that non of the so-called reviewers even read any of the textbooks, and that it was mostly about political reach-around's.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

I've always thought about that. Back when I was teaching study skills, my curriculum told me to tell my students to listen to Mozart, because some study said Mozart makes you smarter. Never bothered to look at the study and find out that the whole deal has been blown way out of proportion, and the author of the study himself will tell you the results were blown out of proportion.

So uh... public apology to all my students out there listening to harpsichord concertos and wondering why they're not getting any smarter. My bad.