English/Liberal Phrasebook

Sometimes it seems like we’re not all speaking the same language. It sounds the same, but doesn’t always mean the same. The ancient sages struggled with this, too:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master–that’s all.’

With that in mind, I offer a few handy words and phrases in Liberal, with their approximate meanings in plain English.

UPDATE: Don’t skip the comments — they’re full of things I wish I had though of. Also in the same category, check out the Fashionable Dictionary.

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What just happened? The paradox

The twentieth century saw large countries devote themselves to a collective effort to advance in learning, to create and spread prosperity to all, and to organize themselves according to rational principles. All they have to show for it is mass graves, blighted lands, salty soil, and a dry sea. How could they have possibly failed?

Americans are no smarter than any other group of people in the world. We know and believe this. Americans also place a higher value on the individual than most of the world. We have no tribes or clans; our families are just our siblings, descendants, and ancestors. We have no holy mountains or rivers, no roots. We would just as soon live one place as another, depending on what we could grow and what it costs. How could an unorganized mob achieve a passable civilization, let alone a large and successful one?

We don’t really know. We just know what happened, not why, and we are not sure we care why. If an action had a good result, we’ll try that again. If it stops working, we’ll try something else. If you keep it up long enough, you get to an answer, just as a blind pig finds an acorn.

Think of the two ways to create a supercomputer. The first is a single, massive, and powerful processor. The second is a huge number of processors, operating in parallel. One attempts to solve the problem directly, the other eliminates all the wrong answers to find the right one, or works on only a part of the problem.

We are left with a paradox: leaving the important questions to a Great Leader, or central processor, limits the computing power to that of the one thinking unit. Leaving them to the millions of insignificant people, such as you and me, solves great problems as weather erodes great mountains — little by little. Thus the collective organization becomes the operation of a single individual, and the riot of idividuals resolves itself into a collective machine. Or, as was said two centuries ago:

He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

Adam Smith


I probably shouldn’t even be writing about this, since it forms a large part of my income, but the National Review had a fine article on Sarbanes-Oxley. This was the law passed after the Enron and WorldCom scandals and the wreck of Arthur Andersen.

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