Rant on the abuses of language

Posted on September 24, 2004

General practitioners’ style warning: this is a rant. A bad one, I’m in a bad mood today and I will vent in here about something totally weird. You may be offended by what I will say. But only if you are an idiot. :-)

Today I woke up in a bad mood. Sleeping too little does that to me. So maybe I shouldn’t have staid up so late watching Farscape episodes, but you know how it is in seasons transitions, it builds up and you can’t stop watching. And then the first episode of the new season comes along and boy is it anti-climatic! Anyway, I set myself up for that one as I know full well how that goes but hey, that’s life.

So, then, something happened this morning related to PDAs (more on that later on another post I’m letting mature in my head at this time) and it (combined with lack of sleep) got me in a bad mood. This in turn, combined with a really weird though association (you gotta love the human brain) turned my venting needs towards the topic which I will finally expose (to the two of you who made it this far).

So what’s this rant about after all? Let’s not start that way, let’s start with what it is not about: it is not about smokers. It may sound like it but it’s not. This is not about people how smoke in general, what it is about is people how smoke and don’t have the guts to admit it and abuse and distort words and language to hide that fact.

I could say that it is about stupid people. I could. But I won’t because I know an awful lot of people that do exactly what I’m on about and I don’t want to offend them so I’ll try and hold my tongue here… ;-)

Still a bit more of disclaimer to get things very clear: I’m not implying in any way that smokers are idiots or anything like that. Idiots exist everywhere and my problem is with them, not with smokers.

And so here it comes, hang on for the ride…

There are people who smoke. It’s their right (in some countries, anyway, but let’s not get sucked into that right now). There are people who have cut down on smoking. I know a lot of people who fall into this category. Good for them (or not, whatever). There are people who have quit smoking. They are close relatives to Sasquatch and probably live right up there with him. (Can you see where this is going yet?)

The above three-group category relates to the people I know myself and to my own experience. I know a lot of people who smoke, I know a lot of people who have cut down on their smoking and I don’t know a soul who has quit smoking.

Oh, I know a lot of people who claim they quit, yes, but I don’t know a single one who has actually done it. Sure, there are many reports of friends of cousins of colleague’s acquaintances who have quit smoking. Sometimes spectacularly so (from 20 packets a day to zero in one night) but just like Sasquatch everyone know of someone who knows of someone who has seen it, but no one has actually seen it themselves!

Now why does this bother me? Consider this example conversation which I have had or heard far too many times for my tastes:

[ Lots of irrelevant conversation about how this person doesn’t do this or that ]

  • Who me? Oh no, I don’t smoke.
  • Really? Well you could have fooled me… So what’s that burning cylinder in your hand then?
  • What this? Oh no, this is not smoking, it’s just a one-time cig… You know for old times sake.
  • So you’re telling me you don’t smoke while you puff away on a cigarette right in front of me?
  • It’s not like that… See, I quit!
  • You did, did you?
  • Sure! back in the old days I used to smoke <insert absurd amount here> packets a day. Now that was smoking. This is just a loose cigarette I do once in a while.
  • Once in a while? So this isn’t actually your first since you “quit”?
  • Yes it is! Well… Actually no, I sometimes smoke one, but just when I’m at a party… Or out with my friends… But I never buy them anymore so it doesn’t count.

Excuse me?? You never buy it so it doesn’t count??

Now see, this just ticks me off! It is just plain abuse of the language.

Words are important. They have meanings which, while a bit flexible, are fixed and exist for good reason. So we can communicate. So when did “quit” become “quit more or less sometimes well you know what I mean”?

(This is going to embarrass me later but…) this kinda reminds me of the original Karate Kid movie when Mr. Miagi tells Daniel something along the lines of “You either karate do or you karate don’t, there is no karate so-so…

And that is how it is with smoking you either smoke or you quit and now you don’t. The logic of the word “quit” is not fuzzy, it’s meaning is not unclear, it is very precise. If you quit you don’t smoke. Ever. Until you pick up a cigar again and then you smoke again, it’s that simple.

If you do smoke but only just a cigarette a month or so then congratulations, you’ve cut down on your smoking quite significantly. Maybe to the point when you are no longer loosing years of live every day (or something like that). Maybe even to the point when it stopped being harmful to you (though not to others).
Once again I say: congratulations, you’ve cut down. But you have not quit you have not stopped smoking! You didn’t!

And that’s OK, it’s your choice and I couldn’t care less but please, please don’t come on all high and mighty talking about how you used to be the biggest, baddest smoker this side of El-Paso and quit smoking just like that and all the other smokers are in for a lot of suffering if they ever try to quit and how strong willed you were and blady, blady, blah. You haven’t quit! And if you have to keep bringing up the issue and talking about it than maybe you are just not OK with it yourself, huh?

Anyway, maybe it is the geek in me that makes me this annoyed at it but I find it really stupid that people distort words to cover up for their lack of determination or for feeling like a looser for not being able to do something. It really does.
Like I said, words are important, they are the basis of human communication and it is incredibly stupid to abuse them to excuse and justify your own flaws.

Once again, maybe this is because I’m a geek and I’m going out on a limb here and exaggerate the heck out of this to make my point even more clear, but when I write this:

for $i in (0 to 9) {
    print "$i\n";

I don’t mean to write this:

for $i more-or-less-in (0 to 9) {
    print-something-approximately-like "$i\n";

And I certainly don’t expect the output to be something like this:


Why not? Because I was precise in my instructions and the one interpreting them was also precise in it.

But humans are not like computers, human language has lots of flexibility and nuances that make it very rich and very interesting and very powerful and very easy to be abused. All of these nuances and flexibility are explored in many wondrous and marvelous ways in fiction, poetry, plays, (intelligent) conversations and many other forms. But then all of these forms of exploration of the language have one thing in common: they respect the basic unit, they respect words and their meaning. The playing around is usually done by means of sentence structure, the choice of words to use, the choice of words not to use, even by using shady and often unused meanings of the words but not by outright misusing them and using to say something that is just not true.

Don’t this people have dictionaries? Or are they just so ashamed to be failing at what they set out to accomplish that they need to outright lie in order to feel good about themselves? And don’t they understand that either way other people usually just don’t care? I know I don’t. I really don’t, just as long as you don’t smoke in my face go ahead and smoke all you want but for heaven’s sake don’t lie about it and (more to the point) if you have to lie about it than just lie, don’t abuse words to do it for you!

See, I told this was a bad rant… ;-)