Saturday, December 31, 2016

Tom, Dick and Harry

Thinking about this phrase, I came across this little snippet of knowlege on Wikipedia:
The phrase is a rhetorical device known as a tricolon. The most common form of tricolon in English is an ascending tricolon, and as such the names are always said in order of ascending syllable length. Other examples of this gradation include "tall, dark and handsome", "hook, line and sinker", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"; and so on.

I found myself wondering if there have ever been three friends actually called Tom, Dick and Harry. Well, there must have been. It must happen all the time. Probably three brothers, too.

Thinking about tricolons got me thinking about words in general.

Some weeks ago I was manning a service desk in the library with a colleague who directed a student to the "device" beside the self-service machines where she could pay her fine with university credit. (There is an internal system of credit which can be purchased with cash and which can then be used to pay library fines, print, photocopy, buy stuff in the university shops, etc. Indeed the café directly below the library, a private venture, accepts this credit but not credit cards or debit cards.)

I found myself wondering why my colleague had used the word 'device' instead of 'machine', 'booth', 'kiosk', or any of the other terms that could have been used.

I think about this quite a lot. Why do we use one word rather than another, when there are a multiplicity of words that could be chosen? Why did I use the word 'multiplicity' in the last sentence, and not 'abundance' or 'embarrassment' or 'plethora'?

This questions puts me in mind of the philosophical dilemma (or perhaps the philosophical joke) of Buridan's ass. The form in which I first encountered it was this; if a chicken is equidistant between two pieces of grain, rationally it should remain rooted on the spot forever since there is no reason to go towards one rather than the other.

If somebody is writing a poem or an essay, and mulling over every word choice, then it's not too surprising that he or she will prefer one rather than another. But I'm more interested in the case of spontaneous, unreflective speech. We very often choose one term rather than another without even pausing for thought. What is happening in our minds at such moments?

This became particularly interesting to me this year, since I was trying to improve my Irish. A learner of any language finds himself constantly returning to the question: "Would a native speaker say this? How is this language actually used?".  I remember a French teacher advising us not to use the term 'boum' for party, since "only thirteen year olds would call a party a boum". (Indeed, I just did a bit of research, and found that even French teenagers won't thank you for using the term.)

But here we come to an interesting twist, in that it's the privilege, perhaps even the hallmark, of a native speaker to break both the rules and the conventions. We're always doing it. We use nouns or names as verbs, even if they're never used in that way. We revive archaic usages ("are you going to join me for luncheon?"). We mispronounce words for the heck of it.

More ordinarily, we simply choose words in a slightly unusual way for the sake of finesse. A well-spoken person might say she is "none-too-sanguine" instead of "not that confident", simply for the sake of variety, or for dramatic understatement, or for some such consideration.

It's funny to think of the drama that's being played out every time we open our gobs.

Indeed, the mystery of choice, or free will, or whatever you mean to call it, never ceases to entrance me. I wonder why someone is reading that book, or listening to that song, when they have an indefinite number to choose from. I wonder, too, how allegiances and beliefs are formed, and when exactly the inner Rubicon is passed and somebody becomes committed to a particular belief system.

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