2007June22Friday Wordliness vs. Truthiness

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

The comic genius, Stephen Colbert, has famously crafted a new definition for the word "truthiness." Insisting his word was in fact an altogether different one than that which one can find in that still arcane reference, The Oxford English Dictionary, he found occasion, when criticized, to drive home the emphasis he wished to place on his "truthiness."€

"You don’t look up truthiness in a book,"€ he pointed out, "you look it up in your gut."€ And therein lies what’s wrong with America today, he claims, that is, the way we cling to a reliance on mere facts, instead of looking to our hearts for the essential truths of what is right.

What has this to do with me? Well, first, let me say, there is no pretense to being in his league, and certainly not a comic genius. I have my moments, I will admit. I think I can say this safely as others, with no reason to rub me the right way with hope of some benefit, have said as much, at such moments. Their sensibilities and perceptions coinciding with mine, I do swell with pride at those occasional instances when, intending to provoke a laugh, I did precisely that.

I have my own patent way of doing this. In person it’s easier, because "zingers"€ issuing spontaneously from my mouth have a way of doing exactly that, and with great brevity and compactness (the soul of the comedic moment), and the matter is closed.

In writing, it’s another story. No one knows, even those who should know don’t, where this comedic impulse comes from. In his column/blog for the NYTimes, Dick Cavett, on the subject quotes Woody Allen who, Cavett says, "has pronounced it to be a mystifying gift, not susceptible to rational explanation." [http://cavett.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/23/a-life-in-rim-shots/ this is the URL for Cavett’s blog, which I highly commend to you, not just for this one entry in May, but for following with regularity; he has yet to write a dud]. Would that I either had such a talent for sure, or that I had had the heart or the guts, or the mere overwhelming need to prove I had it and to do what so many comic geniuses have done. That is, would that I had put my ego on the line, and the prospect of starving at risk and sought the unavoidable test of delivering that most evanescent of human products: humor to order, against a deadline.

When I do write, whether it’s humorous or not, and if so, whether it’s intentional or not, there is one quality of which you can be assured, and that is, to emulate in a lame way the inspired neologistic impulse of Colbert (who allegedly invented "truthiness"€ with its peculiar meaning to him, just moments before he started filming his first episode of his own show), the "wordliness" of what I have to say.

I am not just wordy, which can have a perfectly neutral meaning (now archaic, according to those lexical sources Colbert scorns) of being made up of words (what then? algebraic symbols?), and more usually and certainly as chronically applied to me, a negative one meaning using more words than are necessary. I will say this, first asking my usual question in response, one that I think is perfectly logical to me, and that is, "according to whom?"

Popular opinion holds no water, not from my well. It’s popular opinion that gave us George Bush as President. It’s popular opinion that gave us… but enough said, just by saying the magic word "Bush."€ The duck will not give you 75 bucks at the end of the show, incidentally, if you do say "Bush."€ Though the proper response to hearing the word is to duck. The response to "Cheney" should be to run for cover, preferably to an undisclosed location.

I have been hearing for too long that I use too many words, that I don’t get to the point, etc. etc. Frankly I don’t care. Consider this as one possible explanation for my otherwise generally irritating verbal behavior. My "point" is to use a lot of words. Not merely for the sake of using a lot of words, which seems like a grand inefficiency, if not a sign of an obsessive, possibly masturbatory tendency whose only gratification is purely self-reflexive. I know this not to be true, because under certain conditions, indeed, my what I’m calling "wordliness" has elicited expressions of gratitude, at the very least, and unsolicited expressions—€”clearly meant to bolster my sense of well-being and self-worth—€”of congratulation, adulation or approbation, sometimes some combination of all three.

Here is the usual scenario that produces the latter response.

I have at least one other reputation, apparently despite my greater more invidious reputation for using too many words (an expression that always makes me think of the famous observation by the Emperor Joseph II of Austro-Hungary of a new composition by Mozart that the piece was fine, but that there were "too many notes," a moment immortalized in its portrayal in the movie "Amadeus.")

I have a reputation for being a ready, and often expert, resource for information on a variety of subjects, including those that are the context for what we call a "considered purchase,"€ that is of high-ticket items, usually of comfort, based on high technology, or more generally constituting a category I will call "œhigh gadgetry," from computer scanners to high-end mp3 devices.

I will readily admit, I am the type of fellow, call him a geek, or something less severe, more polite, who, casually asked the time, might just respond with an abstract on the history of clock making or, if in a philosophical mood, I will share my thoughts on cosmology. However, I will eventually report the time, very often with significant accuracy (which is important to me, it’s the same impulse as that for using the "œmot juste," but expressed in horological terms).

But most people, being assured of my knowledgeable reputation on a subject, contact me for a useful response, and not because they want to provoke or trigger a perfectly predictable torrent of digressive, discursive, allusive prose, filled with multi-syllabic words and phrases, dense with dependent clauses, parenthetical asides and the use of every weapon in the armamentarium of typographic devices used to set off phrases and clauses not entirely germane to the matter at hand, and, in strictly ordinary (and crushingly boring) terms specifically to the point—€”like a laser to the moon. This is not even to mention my proclivity, if not my preferred inclination, to use my two favorite items of punctuation, the ellipsis (but for purely dramatic or rhetorical effect… as opposed to represent material previously present and now redacted from the narrative) and the semicolon; the latter, of course, is completely out of favor with, not the word police, but the style police, who are a far more dangerous menace than the clods who simply think certain words should be avoided for their explosive potentiality when placed in proximity to hypersensitive humans who should learn to grow up and suck it up if someone uses pejorative epithets instead of some approved effete euphemism. The style police would constrain the breadth of reach any artist should be free to strive for, because their own limitations leave them filled with grief at having reached their expressive limits, significantly short of merit, never mind genius.

Anyway, say you’ve got a question about digital cameras. Why, fire off an email to Howard, you’re told. He’ll have the right answer. He’ll have a good recommendation. He can point you in the right direction.

I get the email and being generous to a fault, with that most valuable of ineffably elusive of resources, that is, my time, I will write, as well as I can, as comprehensive, yet concise and specific of answers, tailored to the circumstance of my interlocutor: constraints of budget, or technological expertise, or tolerance for certain technical or historical details, which I, or some other more scientifically minded individual might find not only relevant to a general understanding, but pertinent to the business of picking out a product, and only one product, for a single purchase, and some time in the next two or three days (as opposed to the months or years one might want to spend in contemplation of the aforementioned cosmological aspects of the question).

Or say a more personal inquiry appears in my in-box. It may involve a matter concerning the choice of an institution of higher learning of a friend’s child recently come of age, and having received their bac (as they call it here in France, for baccalaureate; more prosaically their high school diploma in the ‘€˜States), or it may involve a matter of the heart, or it may involve a delicate, if not fraught issue between the writer and a mutual friend, or it may be an entirely self-referential personal matter, requiring the resolution of a significant "life"€ decision they find themselves on the threshold of having to make. It may be simply a recommendation as to where to eat with out-of-town guests who suffer a specifically defined set of constraints in their dietary preferences and allowances.

I write back, with the same spirit of generosity of not only time, but camaraderie, neighborliness, a touch of samaritanism, and the sheer pleasure I wish to share that comes from cementing the bonds of friendship through human kindness and consideration. And indeed, referring to this last quality, the thanks I get in response—usually a very brief response, thank God, if truth be known; I don’t want to read some verbose expostulation or flowery ornate ejaculation of appreciation… what am I? made out of free time?—makes an allusion to my "thoughtful" reply. And this adverting to this peculiarly rare quality these days always carries with it a tone, sometimes an outright allusion, though nothing so direct as to be probative, that always allows me to infer that the recipient of my email not only did not expect such a voluminous and authoritative, if not canonical, answer, but in fact, experienced a not unpleasant surprise in being the recipient of such consideration.

"Thoughtful," the word, has, I think, as its closest concise meaning, "considerate."€ One who is thoughtful does, indeed, think. But as well they do so not only in the manner of considering the subject or the topic, but they do so in the spirit of considering the needs of the party on whose behalf they are exerting themselves. If you are considerate of others it’s because you are thinking about them as more than another mere living creature.

It is under such conditions that I never hear the sneering critique that I have used "too many words."€ Or, "Gee, can’t you get to the point?"€ What happens to all this impatience when the presumed beneficiary of my extensive expressive output is not selfish old me, who may be merely capitulating to some selfish and perhaps greedy need to just go on and on and on, and in public, simply because I like the look of my own writing (as if, in perusing it myself, I were not reading it, as I might expect any reader to do—what a silly thought—€”but merely looking at the words… kind of similar to the famous observation of the work of Kerouac, I believe by Truman Capote, that "that’s not writing, it’s typing"€), but the beneficiary is the recipient, who initiated this torrent of an embarrassingly rich load of useful information and knowledge, if not wisdom?

I admit I like reading my writing. As the great rabbi of old (Hillel, is it?) would say, if not me, who? The recipients of my efforts at knowledgeable help never apologize for needing it, or expect to be insulted for asking.

Why am I not "too wordy,"€ in fact, when the beneficiary is, without question, little old you?

Finally, and again, not to make smart self-serving, if not sly, presumptuous, and insinuating comparisons between myself and a recognized high standard that bear no proof in the matter of truth, or even of truthiness—how many of us feel about "The New Yorker"€ that it has an endless list of contents, from one issue to the next. And in viewing the week’s latest issue we find ourselves saying, well, I couldn’t possibly be interested in that subject, only to discover that these essays, or profiles, or features—€”call them what you will—€”that do go on interminably or so it seems, and in purely quantitative terms, also have the quality of drawing us in and keeping us through to the end, strictly because of the quality (in the sense of bearing and sustaining a high standard) of the writing?

That’s my aim. Length is not the question or the problem, but the mere dimension. I’ll call it not wordiness, in all its ugly, mean, and ill-intentioned injuriousness, and so often and blithely thrust my way. I’ll call it wordliness, which always has the same intent, the same neighborly, human and humane intent I have in serving some circumscribed personal and private need, often of a complete stranger that a friend has pointed in my direction.

It does me good, if no one else. Does that mean it’s doing you bad?

I don’t think so. As I say so many times, if it’s that bad, don’t read it. No one yet has had the guts to say, like an imperious ignoramus, anything other than "Too many words Dinin."€ If it’s shit, say so. I can take it. If it’s true, I’ll try never to do it again that way or that badly.

And that’s the truth.


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