Tag Archives: honest

blunt

A long time ago, in the comic strip B.C. by Johnny Hart, a caveman picked up a trumpet-shaped piece of wood. He blew into it. It went “BLUNT!” He looked at it and said, “I’ve invented the blunt instrument.”

Blunt isn’t often applied to sounds, but it does have a good sound for what it means, doesn’t it? With the blowing, blasting bl and the abrupt unt?

What does it mean, though?

If I call a person “a bit of a blunt instrument,” I may mean that the person is dull, i.e., not too bright…

Hmm, notice the seamless shift from tactile to visual metaphor. Let’s say not too sharp, or not too acute, shall we? But more often when I describe a person as “blunt” or say they’re “being blunt,” I mean that they are not sugar-coating their opinions…

Hmm, that’s a shift to taste-based metaphor. I mean that their opinions come without padding…

Which is weird, because padding tends to be blunt – put some on a knife and see.

I don’t mean that what they say isn’t cutting, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t draw blood (figuratively); in fact, bluntness often does all three, in spite of its being the literal opposite of sharpness. But a person who is cutting is deliberately trying to hurt, whereas a person who is being blunt is just being direct, plain-spoken, et cetera.

Except when they are trying to hurt, even if they’re pretending they’re not. If I see someone trying to be hurtful, I probably won’t call them “blunt” – there are other, better words – but if a person describes himself (it’s not always a guy, but usually) as “just being bluntly honest,” then my experience is that they actually are trying to hurt, but they’re trying to get away with it.

Here’s what I mean. If a person says “I don’t like how that shirt looks on you,” that is blunt, and is probably honest (it’s a statement about their own reaction). But people who say they are being “bluntly honest” tend more often to say things like “That’s an ugly shirt” and “Why do you dress like that? Are you blind or just stupid?” This is not honest.

It’s not honest because it presents one person’s opinions and characterizations of the other – all subjective, based on taste, inclination, and interpersonal attitudes – as objective fact. It’s also not honest because it presents the speaker as objective (reinforced by the insistence that the speaker is being bluntly honest), thus implying that there is no subjective element, nothing that involves the speaker’s relation to the hearer.

A quick lesson in linguistics here: Every utterance – everything you say, write, gesture, etc. – draws on, participates in, and asserts a definition of the relation between you and the person(s) you are addressing.

Often the relationship is well-defined and unproblematic – you’re reading my blog for information and entertainment, for instance, and I’m writing it to provide some, and there’s nothing intrinsically degrading about either position. But there are many times when one person wants to assert a specific status relationship: often to claim a higher-status position, which is to say to dominate, to “put someone in their place,” to assert authority. (On the other hand, sometimes they want to claim a lower-status position, which also has its uses.)

When you say something that you have every reason to know will hurt, degrade, humiliate, or otherwise negatively affect another person, and you make no effort to acknowledge that, to mute its effect, or to accommodate their feelings, you are asserting a dominance relation to them (to which they may well object). If you claim that what you’re saying is simple objective fact, that reinforces and adds to the claim – it implies that your feelings and opinions are unquestionably important, and theirs are not worth considering – and attempts to make the assertion unanswerable. The possibility of treating the addressee as someone who does not need to be abused or demeaned does not enter the discourse, though in any reasonable world it would be the default position. Imagine a doorman at a bar who hits you with a club as you walk in and, when you object, he says, “I’m sorry that you would rather be stabbed! We don’t do that here! It’s a nightclub, dumbass!”

Which brings us back to blunt objects. While the figurative use of blunt has quite a wide range, it is at least all led by the literal sense, which is to say, having an edge or point that is rounded and not prone to severing or penetrating. Right?

So. A wall is not blunt; it’s flat. But a cricket bat is blunt because it has those rounded sides. Is an unattached sheet of plywood blunt? Generally I would say not, but if someone were to hit me over the head with one, I think I would not dispute its being called a “blunt object.” (Unless it’s the corner. The corner of a wall may not cut steak but I would not call it not blunt. I have stitches in my forehead to prove it.)

So blunt is ‘dull’, but only in the edge sense, not the light sense? We can’t speak of blunt light or blunt vision? I guess if we’re being poetic we can…

…or if we’re being historical. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, the original sense of blunt is not just dull but really stupid.

Sorry, I mean not just ‘dull’ but really ‘stupid’. The physical sense, referring to edges, is, as far as we can see, a transferred sense from an earlier sense that meant, as Oxford puts it, “dull, insensitive, stupid, obtuse” – and “said, it appears, originally of the sight, whence of the perceptions generally, and the intellect.”

This is because it seems – we’re not sure, at this distance, but it is distinctly possible – that blunt is originally related to blind. Its sense developed as unable to see, to perceive, and from that to understand; thence, not acute, not sharp; and so on.

And if we extend it to willful obtuseness, deliberate not seeing, then those people who cover abusive behaviour with the protestation that they are being “blunt” are being blunt – just in an older sense.

Oh, one other thing. If you’re wondering about Emily Blunt, Anthony Blunt, and all the other Blunts, and their distant kinfolk the Blounts (Blount is from the same origin as Blunt), that name comes from an old word meaning ‘having light-coloured hair’, and you should be able to guess what modern word for hair colour is descended from that. In other words, they’re not dumb; they’re blonde.

honest

I was listening to The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham this evening, and it reminded me of a review I read of it when it came out back in 1996. The reviewer praised it for its honesty.

But how did the reviewer know?

Honest is a term of high praise for a performer. It basically means “He/she is doing or saying things that I, or most people, would hesitate to do because they would show me, or them, in a bad light or make me, or them, unwontedly vulnerable.”

Here, have a look at an example: “The Ten Most Brutally Honest Songwriters.” These songwriters are disclosing personal details, talking about things one simply doesn’t normally talk about.

Well, heck. One doesn’t normally sing, either.

I don’t doubt that many songwriters who are praised for honesty really are being truthful about details of their lives and feelings. But, in general, how do we know? How do we know that they’re telling the truth and not just making up things for better effect? They’re performers, and the point of performance is not what you feel, it’s what your audience feels.

Which is why the saying goes, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Actually, there are many different versions of the saying; Quote Investigator has traced its origins back to actors Celeste Holm and Ed Nelson.) If people could always tell when someone was being honest, life would be different. So different.

There are cases where we can evaluate more surely whether they’re honest. I don’t mean instances where a performer is singing “honestly” about something that can be documented not possibly to have happened. I mean the even more nebulous kind of “honesty,” a kind that was very popular 15 years ago and still shows up: the band sound like they’re recording it in a public washroom while their lead singer unloads a vicious case of diarrhea (and is also suffering from a Biblical bout of catarrh). So true! So like real life! So bare and raw and unprocessed! So unlike, say, Madonna, who is clearly heavily produced in a million-dollar studio!

Except that the Folding Bowels Band (or whoever) is also in a million-dollar studio, processed and produced, but pretending not to be. And, incidentally, is it more honest to expect people to pay for a technically highly competent performance or for one that your neighbour’s shaky adolescent squawks out in the shower? I think you’re making a more honest living – delivering expected quality for money paid – in the former case, though I must admit that if people really (for whatever reason) prefer the trans-tracheal evisceration sound, then yes indeedy, it is more honest to give it to them. De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

But what, exactly, do we even mean by honest, really? A lot of time it’s in the line of “Dude was on. Dude was onner than anyone else. Dude was onnest!” Id est, it’s a plain term of approbation for a virtuous character or performance. We say it to honour someone. And why not? Honour (or, rather, honor, the Latin original without that dishonest pseudo-classical intrusive u that I, as a Canadian, refuse to relinquish) is the etymon; its derivative honestus (which came to us by way of Middle French) means ‘deserving honour; honourable; fine; top rank; doubleplusgood; meritorious of utmost respect’.

It just happens that we esteem highly – and (whether justifiably or not) associate with people of high station – truthfulness: a correspondence between what the person appears to intend and what the person actually turns out to intend. But we used the word honest as a more general approbation for nearly a century (in the 1300s) before starting to use it specifically to mean ‘truthful; not cheating’, and we still use it sometimes in more general sense to mean ‘respectable’ without specifically referring to lack of deceit.

But here is where we run into an issue with using it for performers – actors, singers, painters (a painting is a performance too, though the movement has stopped before you get to see it), so on. We turn to aesthetic performances in order to connect with things that expand our experience without actually involving us in real-world consequences. We want a vicarious experience, a fantasy. Even if it’s not a fantasy for the performers (as in a documentary), it is one for us, our reflexive responses no more imminently significant than the refreshing fear we feel standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower. We may want to have a sense that what we are seeing truly expands our grasp of the world in some way and doesn’t just comfort us – that it’s honest and not escapist – but our experience of it is not more honest, in the sense we think of today, than a roller coaster is an honest experience of a car crash.

We want well-faked honesty. We want not honest but Heston, a great thundering Moses leading us across the gap in a rearing Red Sea between our enslavement in reality and the promised land of truer (but non-damaging) understanding and experience. We want a performance that is honest only in that it delivers to us what we are paying for: a stirring deception.