Daily Archives: December 6, 2011


Were you as enchanted as I was by Delacroix’s rendering of the Sardanapalian odalisque being held unwilling to her early demise (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Delacroix_sardanapalus_1828_950px.jpg)?

I am assuming you know the word odalisque. It is possible, however, that you do not. Everyone must encounter this word first sometime, and it may be fairly late in life, odalisques not being standard features of the modern quotidian. My recollection of first encountering the word was as the title of a dance piece. Since I am a lover of modern dance, especially the abstract kind, I do not think that even at the end of the piece I had a clear idea of what an odalisque was.

The word does not lead you to its referent, does it? With its strong taste of basilisk and obelisk it seems more primed to turn you to stone; with its oda it may make you think of counting miles (that would actually be odo, as in odometer, but the hint is there). But it also has that fancy French ending… not quite esque, but, one may say, somewhat esqueesque. But, now, the esquire may enquire as to what it is esque – or ish, since the old English cognate of esque is ish. Is it model-ish? Perhaps. Especially if the model is risqué.

The truth is that the lisque in this word is from a suffix, but a Turkish one: lık. It expresses function, sort of as English er or ary might when added to a noun. And oda is a room – in this case, a chamber in a harem. An odalisque is an odalık, a woman in a Turkish harem (or any other kind of harem, more broadly) – originally, a slave, a servant to the concubines, a chambermaid to the ladies; in more common usage now, it serves up an image of a concubine herself. The s was added in the French and English because it seemed to make sense – it matched a pattern. Words are our harem, and we will abduct and tattoo and dress them as we will. (That’s much better than doing the same to humans.)

It may have been odious to have been an odalisque (though it may, for some, have been better than the alternatives), but this word is not odious, the resonance notwithstanding. The /l/ in the heart in particular is lithe and lissome; the /s/ slips as silk sliding to the tiles; the que is pure ornamentation, a simple /k/ as in kiss but with a curly q, and the rest is silence. The contexts of this word always bring it forth with a flavour of the exotic (pure orientalism), of a place far away and a time long ago; painters have liked odalisques because they give an excuse to present the nude or half-nude female form in an alluring context.

We would not tolerate the keeping of odalisques now, but we have idealized it then: a beautiful woman, dressed lavishly or lavishly nude, ready to do as the sultan bids, even to the point of fraudulently altering official documents – oh, sorry, wrong Oda, and sorry for the image. You may wish to erase it from your mind with the results of a Google image search on odalisque. You know already what you will see: models, risqué, but great painterly art. Brace yourself for an ingress of Ingres.

Thanks again to Allan Jackson for suggesting today’s word.

Laxity and language

It is a common assumption that lax language is an indicator of lax thought – that a careful thinker will use careful language. Typically riding along with this assumption is another: that “careful language” means formal language adhering to a particular set of prescriptive norms.

The first assumption may seem reasonable enough, prima facie, though, as we will see, there are important limitations and reservations to it. The second assumption is a non-sequitur, the sort of idea that would have a person wear a tuxedo to a construction job. But its effects are pervasive. In fact, it’s been shown that people will rate more highly a weak argument expressed in formal language than a good argument expressed in casual language.

Part of the problem is a general conflation of formality with care. One can use formal words without being careful about them, and one can quite deliberately and carefully use slang and other casual language for effect. Some of the most effective messages in politics and advertising have been crafted in informal language. Indeed, great philosophical insights and thoughtful analyses can be expressed in language that seems sloppy. “You oughta do the same things to other folks as you’d like them to do to you.” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) “Look, the only thing I know is: I know. Ain’t nothin’ sure beyond that.” (Cogito ergo sum.) “If you got one thing in a place, you can’t have another thing in exactly the same place just then.” (Two bodies cannot occupy the same space.) True, the flavour is different, and the language may be less concise (though in some cases the plain version of an analysis is actually more concise – see below). But the understanding conveyed is the same. And beyond that, there are many professional engineers and similar people who are very vigorous and careful thinkers, but whose English is riddled with errors and nonstandard usages. Their drawings and equations are, of course, perfectly reliable.

Among world languages and cultures, sophistication of morphosyntax, whatever that may be (is it greater complexity or greater elegance? it’s almost undefinable), does not seem to correlate with sophistication of thought. And, more importantly, adherence to prescriptive norms can actually evince lack of thought – dogmatism without regard for effect – while masquerading as intelligence. A mind that can only manage one mode of communication regardless of context is not careful, it’s inflexible. And, in spite of what many people would have you believe, inflexibility is a mark of an inferior mind, not a superior one.

In short, it is reasonable to expect that careful thinkers will also more likely be careful users of words. But care in use of words is often misunderstood. Colloquialism can be very inventive – in fact, the inventive spirit is the source of much slang – and “proper” language can be very thick-headed.

To look at the limiting effect of the formality prejudice, consider academic writing and similar registers such as medical jargon. They present themselves as being more precise, and in academic writing the expectation is that this apparently rigorous language is giving a rigorous analysis and adding new perspective. But much of the time they don’t say anything truly new or present a truly fresh perspective. Consider the difference between medical jargon and regular speak: “Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.” “Don’t take Viagra if you have high blood pressure.” Both mean the same thing; the first simply adds the medical in-group sense (“I know this subject, so listen to me”) and uses standardized terminology – and is less likely to be understood by the people who actually use the drug. Much academic writing does the same: the words are not the keys to new understanding; they are just the keys to the door of the private club, the secret passwords to the clubhouse.

This is a topic of which I have some knowledge. I read a lot of academic jargon while getting my PhD, and wrote some of it too (though I always tried to be readable). Defamiliarization, properly done, requires new metaphors, new perspectives, new angles, and not simply more obscurantist ways of saying the same old thing. The only insight given by “Senescent canines are unreceptive to education in novel behaviour modes” that is not given by “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is that it’s possible to say something in ten-dollar words that you could easily say in two-bit words. And, on the other hand, “Adaptability is inversely correlated with age” may seem the most direct and precise statement of the concept, but it’s not as effective in conveying the idea and making it stick. What good is precise information if it’s not retained?

True, new angles of thought and deeper analyses can lead to different use of language, can even demand certain kinds of novel terminology, and one does need to write with precision and key the reader’s mind to receiving the information in a certain mode. I’m not saying don’t write using the academic register! Those expensive words are like expensive wines: people may pay more attention to what they can get from them. But there’s quite a lot out there that is really unremarkable thought packaged in bloated syntax, like a taxi driver who takes you through Jersey and Staten Island to get from Manhattan to JFK Airport – you pay more, it takes longer, but the end result is no different.

I don’t want to say that all academic writing is BS. “Academic BS” does not equal “all academic writing.” And I don’t want to say that people should write in an inappropriate register. As I say so often, language is known by the company it keeps; people will receive your prose on the basis of the expectations created by your choice of words and syntax. But one ought not to hide behind needlessly abstruse syntax and vocabulary; there is still a responsibility to produce actually fresh ideas rather than just putting new lipstick on the old pig.

And, more generally, as many a salesman and preacher knows, putting things in nice, direct language can be very effective and clear. And, as many a body in universities and business management knows, you can often hide the fact that you have little to say by saying it with impressive-sounding words. But that’s often, not always, and you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

So don’t fool yourself. Hiding behind formal language is one of the most pervasive kinds of laxity in English usage – not evidence of careful thought but a means of avoiding it. Remember: if you can’t explain something clearly in plain language, you don’t really understand it.