Tuesday, October 18, 2011

English Language A Pain When It Comes To Describing Pain

With more than 988,000 words in the English language (according to the Global Language Monitor), one would be justified in assuming that there would me more than enough to describe any situation, feeling or item.  Yet, in the Inuit, English & Sami languages, there are several hundred words to describe one English word: snow.  For most of us, that one word is sufficient, yet, the further north we go, the greater the need for better descriptors of the white stuff.  Situations often demand better vocabulary options than the language offers.

Recently, my doctor asked me to describe the level of pain that he understood me to be experiencing with a torn shoulder tendon.  “On a scale of one to ten…” he suggested.  I could not rank my experience in that manner.  In fact, his interpretation of pain was radically different from mine.

Pain is one of those words that is completely inadequate  in the English language.

A few years ago, I had a tooth that was not decaying, but had some nerve damage and slowly was loosening.  On a daily basis, I experienced significant discomfort, but it was not a classic toothache.  It did not “ache.”  However, from time to time, in addition to the discomfort, the nerve would be agitated, and a sharp sensation would knife through my jaw.  Still, to me, it was not pain.

In 1986, I sliced sixteen tendons, the nerves, artery and vein in my left arm.  During the healing process, my doctor prescribed high-power painkillers.  I never used one, as I did not feel that I was in severe pain.  My arm throbbed constantly, and, to this day, my hand feels like it is being pinched in a set of vise-grips. However, my wife was experiencing intense headaches, and used up the entire prescription, with only moderate effect.

In 1972, in the last years before my mother died of cancer, the hospital attempted to have her accept her morphine to alleviate the pain of the illness.  She refused, stating that she wanted to wait until the pain was sufficiently severe.  She felt that using the medication too early would make the painkiller less effective as the last stages of the disease ravaged her.  She died, never reaching the stage where she would accept the morphine.

I have had numerous broken bones, none of which gave me pain, yet all of which induced some inconvenience, with unusual stabs reminiscent of being sliced with a utility knife.

Headaches are different from bruises, while the flu or a severe cold is different again, from a basic headache.

A strained muscle is very unpleasant, but is the pain of the strain equivalent to a deep cut?  How about the unpleasant experience of a paper cut?

Pain extends to the emotional, as well.  A relationship breakup is different from the death of a loved one, yet both bring great pain, and heartache.

Back to my doctor’s query.  On a scale of one to ten?  Well, the shoulder hurts, but my arm laceration was more severe.  So, it cannot be a 10.  The chronic nature of my tooth problem was more aggravating than the arm laceration, so down the scale a notch goes the shoulder.  I have worked for weeks with broken bones, not understanding that they were broken, but knowing that they hurt considerably.  Prolonged and fairly intense, they relegate the toothache down the line.  My mother’s experience with the rot of cancer, no doubt, dwarfs the broken bones.  Again, move the shoulder further back in the line.  I have seen the intense pain that the death of my wife’s aunt caused. Obviously, the anguish of the sudden death eclipses the slow evolution of my mother’s.  Once again, my shoulder takes a backward step.

 So, on a scale of one to ten?  Probably a minus one.  Not because the shoulder feels fine.  It feels far from it.  A minus one, because I cannot claim that the shoulder discomfort is painful, and cannot rank it against other, more serious pains. 

We need more words to describe pain, because this torn shoulder is causing me a good deal of inconvenience, and the inconvenience is a pain in the butt.  An 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Irresponsible Media and the Toyota Prius Problem

Throughout 2009-10, the public was inundated with media reports of the failings of the Toyota product line; particularly, the Toyota Prius. As individuals came forward to claim problems with random and uncontrolled acceleration of these vehicles, all media piled on to the automaker, reporting specific incidents where the drivers had applied the brakes, to no avail. Television carried footage of a driver being guided by the police to decelerate, without success.
As Internet media, television, radio and print media carried article upon article of failed software systems in this hybrid, almost none of those responsible journalists and reporters offered the distinct possibility that the drivers were at fault, and not the vehicle’s advanced programming.
Toyota claimed that many of these reports were not valid, and that others were the consequence of sticky gas pedals and floor mat problems. The media largely ignored this. When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that they could not replicate some of this issues on the specific vehicles that the owners had claimed to have occurred, the media gave scant coverage. The story, it appeared, was much better, embellished and unsubstantiated.
The next phase of irresponsibility occurred when the US Congress summoned the head of Toyota to testify regarding the problems, and, instead of waiting for concrete evidence of problems, set about to publicly chastise the auto giant for its problems. In fairness to Congress, much of its public scolding focused on the delays in reporting problems of which Toyota was aware. That, at least, was valid. But senators and congresspersons alike displayed myopic gang mentality by making incorrect assumptions of the cause, even though their own government agency had cautioned against irrational and premature conclusions,
Throughout the spring and summer of 2010, media reports continued to flow – no, gush – on Toyota’s software problems, even though in August the NHTSA reported to Congress that 35 of 58 incidents that they had analysed to date showed no software flaw. At the height of the feeding frenzy of irresponsible journalism, a survey of 40 various media found 149 articles denigrating Toyota for its problems, insinuating that they were aware of a software problem or ignoring Toyota and NHTSA reports that there was not a software issue.
In February, 2011, the final report on the Toyota software failures came in. It agreed with Toyota’s internal examinations, and found absolutely no evidence of software failure relating to the sudden acceleration issue. With 11 million vehicles recalled by Toyota during the frenzy to crucify it, and obvious damage to Toyota’s reputation for reliability, one would assume that a plethora of news articles on the findings would have followed the release of the report. Instead, in the following week, an independent survey of a similar 40 media sources found only 9 articles or items reporting on this conclusive discovery.
It would appear that each of these responsible reporting bodies would have found it both morally and journalistically imperative to contribute to a public awareness effort that mitigated the damage of inaccurate, incorrect and irresponsible journalism. It would appear, though, that the requisite truth and responsibility in dealing with the public that the media demands of others does not extend inward. It is unfortunate that “free speech” allows us to say what we want, but does not require us to amend what we later find to be wrong. Perhaps, free speech needs to be redefined to be the freedom to speak accurately and fully, not in a way that serves our own purposes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The language of Advertising: Who Needs the Truth?

In order to “get the message out,” advertisers have evolved tactics that no longer rely on the message, at all. Images, feelings and memories are the tools of non-verbal communication, even when verbs and nouns stand in their place.
Consider the Budweiser commercials of several years ago. “Wassup.”
Wassup? Is it a word? Is it a complete question? Is it anything other than a blast of emotion from one friend to another? The advertisements worked. That word (or lack thereof) has become entrenched in our vocabulary, as much as “tweet” has replaced a bird sound with a way of talking.
The days of using sex to sell everything from cars to cleaners have not died. They simply have been inflated, distorted, elaborated and refined. The messages may be more subtle or subverted, in order to assuage and avoid the vitriol of women’s groups, but they still carry the same undertones.
The days of explaining the merits have, though, expired. Except, of course, for the requisite disclaimers and riders that accompany every advertisement for drugs and health remedies. If you need to fix something that “got broke” in your body, be prepared to endure a dozen other ailments to cure the minor one for which you are seeking relief! These ads, of course, no longer are ads. They are information pieces.
Whatever happened to the Marlborough man? Well, first, Tom Sellick aged! Then, of course, cigarette advertising became taboo. No sponsorships allowed, no focusing on minors, no smoking in “G-rated” movies, no feel-good packaging.
Then there is alcohol advertising. Hidden away after peak viewing hours (unless it doesn’t actually promote drinking, of course), booze promotions have been relegated to the unacknowledged uncle status.
If cigarettes, alcohol and pharmaceuticals can be so heavily censored, then why am I still subjected to the nuances of influence-peddling , without shame or regard to relevance?
The answer is simple. Subtle, non-verbal advertising works. Since advertising sells products, and products generate jobs & taxes, we simply cannot shut down every deviant attempt at picking our pockets. So advertisers are allowed latitude to be creative.
Personally, I am grateful. I am tired of listening to truth and honesty in advertising. I prefer to have my emotions ripped like an old shirt, images that disrupt my calm thrown at me for eight minutes of every half hour, and old memories evoked by some non-verbal cue. If I wanted honesty, would I be drooling at the thought of 12 months of election drivel in the soon-to-launch rush for the 2012 White House?
Bring it on! I can hardly wait to hear how we are going to be abused, raped, and robbed by those Democrats. Or is it Republicans? Or is it both? Forget the message. Forget the truth. Get that message out!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

OMG! Canadian English is Under Attack!

OMG! The English language is under attack!
At least, the English language is being transformed by technology and trends in communication.
While “OMG” is unlikely to impact on a buying decision, affect a position of principle or offend the masses into uprising, the phrase (or, more correctly, the abbreviation of the phrase) holds a position of sway in specific demographic markets. Therefore, it can not be ignored as irrelevant to communication.
The English language historically has been battered and bruised, adjusted and altered over the centuries. Take, for example, Canadian English. Hybridized by inclusion of Canadian French, influenced by American culture and adapted through infusion by First Nations and Metis, Canadian English is uniquely ours. Ask for a serviette outside of Canada, and you`ll observe question marks hanging over the heads of the people with whom you converse.
“With whom?” While technically correct, formal English phrases such as this rarely are used in advertising, because, substantially, they appear too cumbersome. Yet, to lapse into conversational English and write, “the people you are talking to” would be a faux pas within a corporate report.
Today’s communications require more than a comprehension of the technically correct phraseology. Communications require identification with the appropriate audience, and relaying or receiving messages in the jargon of that audience.
I have had to learn “twitter.” Being a literary dinosaur, I discovered that even conversation does not require a larynx. Having skipped “texting kindergarten,” I was compelled to fast-track my digit dialogue once I became attuned to the power of Twitter, Facebook, and the host of social media available online. To ignore them as irrelevant would force me to capitulate to new ideas, and new ways of “doing business.”
The evolution of slang, colloquialisms, abbreviations and non-words is not the fault of the “younger generation.” It is the doing of old dinosaurs, like myself, who continually strive for new ways to put punch in our advertising and mass communications.
In the 1950s and 1960s, advertisers relied on jingles to grab our attention, and penetrate our minds. “You’ll wonder where the yellow went” has lingered in my memories long after Pepsodent toothpaste remained on my shelf. Jingles were buried, ignominiously, in the 1980s, not long after Coke “wanted to teach the world to sing.”
Sound bites (cue “Do the Dew” and Wasssup!) wedged their way into the English language in the 1990s, along with, thanks to Bill Gates, a host of new compu-words, like bytes & email or phrases like “Surfing the Net.”
YouTube took words out our mouths and replaced them with instant video. I suppose one could make the case, however, that AFV was the real instigator!
I concede that I find, still, that I prefer to read a comforting, emotion-arousing flow of prose when I wish to relax. But a well-crafted advertisement needs impact. Consequently, thoughts are reduced to phrases, phrases to single words, and, soon, single words to one or two letters on a mobile telephone or Twitter page. While I fondly recall savouring the Paradise trilogy, the 1,200 or so pages, today, could be readily reduced to “Satan disses God, Satan bites the dust, Satan fights back.”
This progression requires that we allow the English language to divert and reroute like a bubbling creek. British English largely loses its relevance in North American culture. But the clash of a multitude of forms of English communication creates literary angst. When naming this blog, for example, I began with “Nounsense.” To me, it was catchy & clever – a play on words. Upon review, I realized that “Nonsense” dominated, and the first impression of the blog would be that of a trivial nature. I opted for “Words Worth It.” Far too artsy. Next, I latched onto “Practical Prose.” Isn’t that a stuffy label? At last, I realized that what I wanted to say in the blogs to be posted is that Canadian English is unique, evolving, and a magical mix of many influences. Comprendez?