Nitpicking to Nukes #1: Distinctions Without a Difference

Another new form of Musing- this time, a series all about the little ideas we blow totally out of proportion- like dropping Tsar Bomba on the chimpanzee that made raspberries at you. (DISCLAIMER: The author does not approve of nuclear proliferation, particularly not 50 megaton super bombs capable of engulfing almost the entirety of NYC in a fireball and smiting the entire state. Not even if he has researched those bombs with creepy intensity.)

Ah, profundity, thou fickle metaphorical vixen! By such strange means hath thee the hearts of man and maid ensnared, to the bewilderment and ruination of all! I trust my pseudo-feudal- pseudo-feudo? bleh- jargon hasn’t soured you all overmuch- I mean, too much!- here at the very start. I really hope it hasn’t, anyway, because as you may have guessed, this one could get a little dry. Saharan? Ha, friend, if only. Turn your gaze (and preferably a high-end telescope) to the tortured volcanic hellhole that is Jupiter’s moon Io. Got it? Good, that’s about how dry we’re talking here. Liquid rock doesn’t count, either, you shouldn’t drink that stuff no matter what the mirages say. Unless, of course, you’re some sort of golem, in which case I apologize for giving you EVEN MORE INSTRUCTIONS.

Whoo, boy, I’m dilly-dallying ’cause this entry could cause issues. I’m going to pull some examples from living authors, and there’s a slight chance they might actually see it. If you didn’t get the drift from my intro, authors really like their catchy philosophical phrases. Don’t understand the hype, honestly, people these days perceive so many things as deep, not realizing they’re just too used to standing in puddles. If you thought that was clever, stop thinking that- I just made a totally open-ended generalization in the guise of a truism. People- plural, meaning more than one, not a hard condition- perceive, and this also has many meanings, since there are so many forms of perception,  that ‘things’… you get the picture. It’s so general my chances of being right are literally three billion to one- because I only two people, somewhere, to fulfill my meaning. It’s basically cheating.

But that’s the thing- it’s very easy to dazzle your less introspective readers by throwing out catchy phrases that sound impressive. People are given to thinking ‘Oh wow, I don’t even understand the meaning here, it’s so deep.’ Sometimes that’s the case; often there isn’t a meaning, or not one beyond what the reader supplies. And, my dear fellow authors, please understand this is only vicious if you pull this kind of trick: if the only meaning in your text comes from the reader, YOU ARE WORTHLESS. More on that in another topic, but understand- as the author, it’s your damn job to make the reader care, and so (non-denominational) God help me, if you’re so low as to exploit people who are happy just to read a well-written story, who find joy in a book without having to be drawn in all that much, I WILL CUT YOU INTO SEVEN PIECES AND STAKE ONE ATOP EACH THE WONDERS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD. Not really. Well, I hope not really. Angry Cullen is hard for me to reason with, you see, and I’m not sure what I might do if I get me pissed off enough.

Which is why I disapprove of lines such as, “*character* is a great swordsman, but a terrible fighter.’ That, ladies and gentlemen, is a line from a high-fantasy novel. It’s also a flippity-flappity pretty little paradox. I like this author, by the way; I like the series that line is from (one of them, anyway, I’m sure it’s popped up elsewhere). But that line, I despise- because it’s dubious out of context, and in context it’s freaking stupid. ‘A swordsman’ in the medieval context (high fantasy is pretty darn medieval, folks) is any soldier who bears a sword. Soldiers in the Middle Ages, the few actual standing Men-At-Arms and Knights to all the scruffy peasant levies, were all fighters. To be a great swordsman is to be a great fighter- there is no separation here. Even in the modern sense, most people think of a swordsman as skilled only if he can avoid getting stabbed in the leg. It’s hard to hit a leg with a spear’s pointy end, folks- instinct and simple physics make center mass more tempting. If you get stabbed in the leg, either you’re not a good fighter, or you were just outclassed.

You may say, ‘Semantics’ and I’d agree with you if we weren’t dealing with the definition of a very old, very specific word with very similar connotations in almost every culture. We need to let words change meaning organically, yes, but in this case I don’t think the author was doing that. The author decided to flout the meaning of a word whose origins go back milennia (probably) in order to use it for a bit of comedic philosophy; I didn’t laugh, because I immediately thought of Musashi’s stern, idealized Samurai visage, and was very disappointed to hear such men slandered indirectly. Look, can we agree that since language just sort of happens  on its own, it’d be better to avoid hammering words out of shape to suit our benefit? Because if I say ‘blue’ and mean it as a verb for ‘I want to eat your liver,’ then we’re not going to enjoy ourselves regardless how long it takes them to arrest me. A better form of that example line would be ‘a great fencer’ because fencing is just practice, and carries a nice connotation of fops with rapiers and frilly sleeves. Frilly sleeves are the kind of things you expect on talentless hacks who get stabbed in the leg. Aside, that is, from the German Landknechte, who carried six-foot swords, were popularly held to be seven-foot themselves, and would bifurcate you for laughing at their outfits. Some pretty impressive mercs, those.

I could go on, but providing more (really long) examples wouldn’t really reinforce this point. I’m not trying to make an unassailable case, I’m trying to entertain you, and besides, I’m sure you can think of dozens of  quotes on your own, most of which will make more sense to you than anything I could possibly throw out. Ultimately, I just want everyone to stop trying so hard, eh? Some of the wisest things I’ve ever said were the ones that took the least thought. That’s wisdom, right? It’s not the same as knowledge, not really. You don’t have to dredge it up from dusty archives (usually), and you can study for decades without really getting wise at all (under certain circumstances). It’s not some huge shimmering truth or lengthy, meandering parable with subtexts about mortality. It’s something so simple, so pure, that it cuts to the heart of the matter. It doesn’t need working up, like this huge laborious sword analogy I just constructed. So let’s just all get over ourselves, shall we? Except me, of course, because I’m an author, and ultimately that means all I do is tell people things.

… that little confession just killed my career, didn’t it? Well, guess it’s off to Micky D’s already!

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