Saturday, September 6, 2014

Terms of Multitudes, Or It's only strange if someone else does it

For the last (many) years, I've been reading my way through Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I just ran across the listing for terms to be applied to groups of things: My favourite is a "shrewdness of apes" (though, an "exaltation of larks" is still pretty good).

Initially, of course, these terms strike a modern reader as distinctly odd. I suppose these terms are a remnant of old counting systems that didn't go much beyond two (e.g. "one", "two", "many") and the natural extension of those counting system to give every number a unique name (e.g. "dozen" for 12).

But, of course, these terms aren't really all that unusual: We just don't notice the ones we use automatically. We all, I suspect, refer to a "herd" of cattle, a "team" of baseball players. And we do all still retain "pair" for 2 along with "dozen" for 12.

It seems to me that this is the essence of effective technical writing: reducing oddness to familiarity. The goal is always to climb inside the mind of the audience. A great part of that has to mean not regarding the audience as particularly odd (no odder than you and I are, for instance).

I've tried to take this to the logical next step: Whenever I'm reading about some culture foreign to me and I run across some practice that seems bizarre to me, I try to come up with some analogous activity in my culture that seems perfectly natural. This practice has a couple of interesting results. First, it's surprising how little time it takes for me to find an analogy in my culture for something that, initially, seemed foreign or bizarre. Second, it helps me see that other culture as being as human/normal/natural as my culture (sort of my version of "I am human and, therefore, nothing human is foreign to me"). What I like best is that it helps me see my culture with fresh eyes, as something full of odd things.

Where and how we live isn't just the "same old, same old": it's really quite special. We've just gotten used to it and don't notice its special wonderfulness.

My reading or read

No comments: