Tag Archives: speech acts

Prayers and thoughts and inefficacious speech acts

My latest article for The Week is actually one I wrote a few months ago. We decided to keep it in reserve until another mass shooting brought the topic into the news again. Sadly, we knew that it would happen. And it did. Here’s a piece on that thing that people say as a substitute for doing anything effective:

How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became the stock phrase of tragedies



Coffee joints, aside from – or because of – being good meeting places, are also good places for people-watching, which of course also means linguistic observation. I was seated in the Metaphor Café awaiting the arrival of a few of my friends; at a table close by, a relationship was having a public rough patch. A young man who had clearly committed an indiscretion that he was sorry for having been caught in (but perhaps not for having done) was being as appropriately hang-dog as he could muster with his girlfriend. He seemed to have prepared a statement that he was reciting to her.

“It was a stupid thing to do,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m apologetic for doing it.”

What a weasel, I thought. He couldn’t even commit to the actual speech act: I apologize. Saying that is in itself making an apology; it’s an act that is done by saying it’s done, like I promise or I declare or I pronounce you man and wife (something this pair seemed unlikely to hear in the near future). Saying I am promissory does not constitute a promise.

“You wiener!” the girl said.

Well, she got that pretty much right on, I thought. The guy’s probably cribbed his speech from Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who, on being caught out sending suggestive and flirtatious pictures to various women and lying about it, said (among other things) “I don’t know what I was thinking. This was a destructive thing to do. I’m apologetic for doing it.”

The girl continued. “I am sooooo angry with you!”

Ah, I thought. Now there’s a statement of emotional state. I’m angry and I’m happy and I’m sad have adjectival predicates that describe a person’s feelings. I’m apologetic is also phrased like an emotional state. But it’s not. It’s not I’m feeling bad. It’s just a state of being inclined to make apologies. It pretends that an apology has already been made. There is, however, one statement of emotional state that is, in the right context, also (and more actually) in itself a speech act of apology: I’m sorry.

“You can’t just talk it away, you know!” the girl said.

Ironic, I thought, since apology is from Greek ἀπό apo “away, off” and λογία logia “speaking”. It first referred to speech meant to explain and defend; now its common meaning is more in the line of what wolves do when they bare their throats – it’s a payment in the social economy of status and obligation exchanges; it acknowledges lower status and indebtedness. But apologetics also refers to an argumentative defence of a doctrine (the usual context is Christian).

The girl continued fuming. “It’s appalling behaviour!”

Appalling? I thought. Maybe Apollonian! Not just because apologetic sounds sort of like a blend of Apollo and exegetic but because in the schema proposed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, the Apollonian is the mental, rational, organized contrast to the lusty, emotional, chaotic Dionysian. And this guy has clearly engaged in the Dionysian and is now trying to be as cold and Apollonian about it as he can. But, as Cassandra says in Agamemnon, “Ototoi popoi da! Apollo!” Which means something like “Augh WTF oh nooooes! Apollo!” Sometimes you just talk yourself into more trouble. And sometimes, as with Cassandra, nobody will listen to you anyway. (And don’t forget that olo in the middle of apology, which looks a bit like a rude gesture.)

“Appall— aw, gee!” the guy stammered, about as close to a real apology as he was likely to get. “It was just a text!”

“It was a tweet,” the girl said icily. “You twit.”

Apparently the young man, like Anthony Weiner, hadn’t realized the whole world was about to get a glimpse of whatever it was he was sending. Tweets are not private, not even when you tweet your privates.

The guy tried a new tack. He held out a beverage loaded with whipped cream. “I bought you a fancy triple-whip cap-frap-cinnamellatte. Cuz you’re my special sweetheart.” He tried a little smile and cocked his head.

Just then Jess arrived. She observed me observing. “Missing something good, am I?” she said, sotto voce.

At about the same moment, the girl, having taken the beverage, lashed its contents full-force into the guy’s face. I reflexively flinched back and, in so doing, knocked over what was left of my first cup onto the table and partly onto Jess. The girl stormed out, the guy stood there dripping, and Jess was simultaneously trying not to laugh her head off and looking down at the coffee stain on her pants.

“Oh,” I said to Jess, trying to keep a straight face and seizing the spirit of the moment, “I am apologetic.”

Jess raised an eyebrow and smirked a little. “Weiner.”