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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-06-27)

Let’s revisit some of our previous areas of interest.

We discussed the word “temper” in no 29 of this series. A couple of days ago I saw a newspaper item which neatly illustrated its continuing ambiguity. One of South Africa’s more flamboyantly disgusting right-wingers, currently serving a jail sentence for attempted murder, announced to a waiting world that while in prison he had found the Lord and had been reborn. He said that this experience had had a “tempering” effect on him (good) and enabled him “to control his temper” (which was unquestionably bad). He rather hoped that this change in attitude might bring about a reduction of his sentence but, as far as I know, the prison authorities were unmoved by his spiritual regeneration.

In my last column we made an attempt, largely unsuccessful, to identify as American certain idiomatic words that have come into the language. No sooner had the article appeared than the word “doolally” (meaning “crazy”) swam into view on the Internet. I was sure it was an American invention, but again it turned out not to be. It’s based on the name of a town in India near Bombay called Deolali, where, it is said, there was a hospital which provided treatment for British personnel who had “gone troppo”, i.e. succumbed to the tropical environment and gone mad.

We looked recently at our loving relationship with scientific terms such as “quantum leap”. Another favourite scientific cliché of our time is the expression “learning curve”. People talk, for example, of having endured “a steep learning curve,” meaning that they had much to learn in a short time.

A “learning curve” is neither a lesson nor a learning experience. It is a graph, a pictorial depiction of a learning experience. As any teacher will know, it takes the form of a flattened “S”. In a half-hour lesson, it will take about five minutes to get the attention of the class and explain the subject; twenty minutes to teach them something (the steep part of the curve); and five minutes till the bell rings, during which their exhausted brains go into neutral and the curve flattens out.

But “learning curve” sounds good. Unlike “lesson”, it has no immediate association with school and childhood. It makes us sound grown-up and sophisticated, and I think it will be with us for some time to come. In the end it will become stale and disappear. The word “lesson” will probably become acceptable again, and high time too.

Another scientific term much loved in non-scientific conversation is “viable”. It has a precise meaning, “capable of living, surviving, germinating or hatching”, and would be applied to any young organism, whether plant or animal. But it has acquired an idiomatic use as well, and is often applied to, say, a project that has a prospect of succeeding.

A particularly striking example of clichés in use has cropped up in the last few days, but it will have to wait until the next article in this series. Until then, stay viable.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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