Overweening Generalist

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Words and Names and Their Not-Exactly-Rational Underpinnings

What the hey: quasi taking-up where I left off...

I've been trying to make sense of this recent article , which is a tad technical for me, so heavy sledding but very interesting. Just the sound of a word will influence what we think it means. The relative shortness of a noun will have our brains thinking of what that word stands for as concrete or abstract. Etc.

I remember an Aldous Huxley novel (I forget which; I used to read them one after another) in which a silly old woman was named Mrs. Mercaptan. I think her first name was Ethel. Now, novelists of ideas - and especially ones with a satirical bend - will do this all the time. Mercaptan is what the Brits call a sulfurous compound that smells like rotten eggs. Like flatulence. It's added to odorless natural gas so that, in case of leaks, everyone will know, and quickly. Ethyl used to be used for "gasoline." This kind of thing takes a certain base of knowledge in order to get in on Aldous's little joke. Otherwise, "Mercaptan" sounds sort of "official" to me. It has the word "captain" in its sound. It has a "serious" sound of /k/ then that crisp /p/ followed by /t/ sound. "Mercaptan" means business. But when she speaks, we hear her as an old bag of wind.

In another novel of Huxley's - maybe the same one? - one of his characters needs a carminative and waxes on the sound of the word itself: it sounds soothing to the character, who knows what it's for. And so we get a tad more fun irony.

Aldous was hyper-cognizant about how he was using words and what his better readers would glean from it. What I'm talking about is that aspect of a-rationality in some of our labels and names and words.

The great German psychologist of the gestalt persuasion, Wolfgang Kohler, in 1929 published Gestalt Psychology and in it he asks, Which of the two following shapes is "takete" and which one is "maluma"?

Both words are made-up, but even a non-native speaker knows the one on the right is "takete" and the other "maluma." Why? Because the sounds in "takete," when you say them (maybe even look at the word?) are abrupt, jagged, hard. "Maluma" sounds blob-like and meandering. If you don't think advertisers know this stuff you are one helluva Naif.

Ever wonder why Prozac or Seroquel are called those things? Oxycontin, Vicodin, Zoloft, Xanax? Well, the zed and the "q" and the vee and the big-time Xs mean business and effectiveness, on some sub-conscious level. (Or is it unconscious?) Those names - while confabulated using the sort of research done by the guys in the study I link to at the beginning of this article - connote seriousness. These drugs emanated from a highly technical world of rationality and expertise, or else why all the Xs? It seems it's right there - the High Technology of the drugs - in the sound and spelling of the names for those drugs. And it works for Big Pharma, in cash. For some "reason."(Some of those drugs even actually sorta "do" what they're advertised to do! May wonders never cease.)

If you're starting some high-tech firm that sells fiber optic whizbangs or nanotubular gizmos to labs that do who-knows-what, fer crissakes, name your company Zontec or Kiqvek. (I can do better. Get back to me later on those.) But you don't have to be a PhD in superfluids to know Bellsyloo is not a good name for a hi-tech firm. Neither is Melmu-Landa. I just made up those last two, but don't they sound like they'd make toys for children? They almost sound huggable. None of this makes sense, I know. But we're trying to bypass our critical modules and go right for...something emotional. Something non-rational.

HERE is lexicographer Robert Beard's 100 most beautiful words in English. Before I first read it, I knew two of my faves - redolent and mellifluous - would be there, and they were. "Dalliance" is on the list, too. Robert Anton Wilson thought it one of the most beautiful words also. Any one of us can quibble or protest with what Beard left out or included, but I just read the list and it feels like I'm reading poetry. Why? I don't know. I'm trying to figure it out, and "Arbitrary Symbolism In Natural Language Revisited: When Word Forms Carry Meaning" is part of my effort to figure it out.

Another list of "beautiful" and "ugly" words in English.

I just noted that "tintinnabulation" appears on Beard's list; the rhythm of that word sends me; I love it. Which reminds me of the psychedelic humor and wordplay of Robert Anton Wilson, who used a bit in his stand-up intellectual comedy act in the 1990s that revolved around the wife of the President. He said that when you say "Hillary Clinton" over and over, it sounds like a train approaching, but when you add her middle name and say "Hillary Rodham Clinton" over and over, it sounds like the train has passed you and it's receding into the distance.

Finally, Prof. Carlin said that certain word-sounds turned him off to certain foods. "Head cheese" just was not something he wanted to get into; similarly:"eggplant." Well, which is it? Sounds like you're being jerked-around; someone's sending mixed messages. It's a trap! (I agree that "head cheese" not only sounds unpleasant, but it almost stares at you and dares you to show us how fearless, open-minded and cosmopolitan you are by trying it.)

Meanwhile, "guacamole" - to Carlin - just sounded hilarious and difficult to take seriously.

Speaking of food and Prof. Carlin the stand-up Sociolinguist: a 7 minute-long Public Service Announcement:

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