Jargon, Proverbs, and Memes

Texan99, writing at Grim’s Hall, discusses the ‘thick fog of buzzwords’ that pervades the educational arena in this country. My comment is that buzzwords and jargon are worst in education, government, and the ‘nonprofit’ world, but increasingly are also pervading the world of business and having a malign effect therein. Many of the posts I see on LinkedIn, for example, represent attempts by people who have never had a creative idea or insight in their lives to posture a deep thinkers and business intellectuals by maximizing their use of the buzzwords du jour.

Sarah Hoyt draws a distinction between memes and proverbs:

Of all the ways people have come up with to avoid thinking, I like memes the most.  They are so ridiculously easy to fall into.  You see the words, you see the picture and you go “ah ah, that’s so true.” Even when on a minute’s reflection it makes no sense whatsoever…I think in a way it follows the same pattern that proverbs followed in more ancient cultures…While proverbs were ways not to have to think or short cuts around thinking, they weren’t, by themselves, pernicious…Proverbs are in a way, the encoding of societal wisdom into short cuts to lead people into ways that have worked before…Memes are similar, but you have to remove societal wisdom and put in “the commanding forces of culture and mass media”.  RTWT

Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young captain on the French General Staff (later a general, he commanded the French contingent in the Suez attack) commented on his impressions when he first breathed the refined air at the General Staff level:

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

Entirely consistent with Beaufre’s observation was a interchange between the artists Picasso and Matisse which took place in the midst of the collapse of 1940:

Matisse: But what about our generals, what are they doing?

Picasso:  Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!

…ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.

The decline in clarity of writing and speaking presages nothing good.  Confucius pointed out that “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

See my earlier post When Formalism Kills and the ensuing discussion thread.

5 thoughts on “Jargon, Proverbs, and Memes”

  1. I can think of one convention that’s long gone. I used to work in a university where one of the administrators would write to me as “Dear Mee”. After a while it stopped – I assume that he was an old boy who had retired – and then letters began “Dear Dr Mee”.

    I confess ignorance; how were women addressed in the era when men were addressed by surname?

  2. “how were women addressed in the era when men were addressed by surname?” I would think for surname-only, it would be easy: you have Smith, and you have Mrs Smith.

    But I believe that as least in the US, women were often addressed (in written form) with their *husband’s* first name, i.e.:

    Mrs Harry Smith

    …which seems pretty weird

  3. Also, the PowerPoint Plague has much to do with this general topic. It *is* possible to do a good P/P presentation…I will humbly assert that I have done so…but the structure of the product does not encourage it.

  4. Women doctors who married after medical school, usually used their Maiden name on licenses and were addressed as “Dr Jones.” If they married in medical school, as one of my friends did, they used the husband’s surname.

    I am suspicious of women with hyphenated surnames.

  5. “But I believe that as least in the US, women were often addressed (in written form) with their *husband’s* first name”: yes, when I was a boy a married woman would be Mrs John Mee, and when widowed she’d become Mrs Mary Mee.

    This could be particularly confusing in Scotland where a married woman didn’t, in law, take her husband’s surname at all; it was mere social convention to attribute it to her. So in a court case the wife would be referred to as, for example, “Mary McDonald or Mee”. If she died after her husband her gravestone might have shown “Mary Catriona McDonald, relict of Dr Ian Alisdair Ewart Mee”.

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