There are some things that seem so obvious. You look, and they’re there. They seem obvious to other people too. But obviously different from what you see. A different perspective gives a different conspectus. This does not conduce to consensus or common respect.
Words can be like that. We see the same thing (and hear the same thing), and yet they have different flavours for different people. This is why even onomatopoeia is still conventionalized. It’s also why a game like Balderdash can be the kind of fun it is.
I haven’t played Balderdash in years, but I remember playing it a few times when we lived in Edmonton. The game goes like this: for each turn, one person (a different one each turn) pulls a card and reads the uncommon word printed on it, and the players write down definitions. The first person collects them, reads each prospective definition (not in respective order) along with the real definition, and each other player guesses which one is right. Each vote your definition gets nets you a point. If you submit a definition that is pretty much the same as the real one, it doesn’t get read and you get two points.
One word I remember coming up was conspectable.
This word has parts that seem obvious enough to me: con, ‘with, together’, spect, ‘see’, able. I seem to recall I wrote a definition that was passably close to the real one and got two points. But what stands out for me is that one person’s invented definition was on the lines of “a policeman who goes around ensuring people respect each other.” A respect constable, in other words. A politeness cop, you might say. Someone who helps make sure people see it each other’s way, or at least understand one another’s points of view.
The definition given by Balderdash, as I recall, was (roughly) “visible from multiple points simultaneously.” Which really does seem obvious from the parts, doesn’t it? Just like the word itself: seen equally by all players, but seen from different sides. But those of us who grew up in the mountains know well that this does not mean the people are seeing the same thing. Seen from Exshaw there is a mountain we called Sproule’s Nose, after one of our teachers. Heading out of the mountains a bit east of Exshaw, there are two flat-faced mountains facing each other across the valley: Yamnuska on the north and Barrier Mountain on the south. It was years – honestly well into my adolescence, I think – before I realized that Barrier Mountain was Sproule’s Nose, seen from 90 degrees different. The flat face was the underside of the nose.
And some 25 years after conspectable came up in Balderdash, I find myself looking at the Oxford English Dictionary and seeing conspectable, with a obelisk on it (signifying obsolescence), two citations from 1727 and 1822, and the following definition: “Easy to be seen, obvious.”
The con, you see, is not the con in chile con carne. It is the con in conspicuous, confute, and convince, among others: an intensifier. It has the same origin, but Latin sometimes used prefixes such as per– and inter– and con– to mean ‘thoroughly’. Why use ‘with, together’ to mean ‘thoroughly’? For the same reason we use altogether, I rather think.
So. We all saw it. And it was obvious. I thought. Well, it was obvious. But as much as it can be seen from different points of view, it is not seen quite the same way. I was not conned by the contradiction; it was beyond my control. I just hope that, having inspected the difference, we can respect it.