Saturday, April 5, 2014

Columbus' Stupid Mistake

Every time someone uses the word Indian, it requires clarification. Does it refer to a person from India, or a Native American? The problem stems from what I call "Columbus' stupid mistake."

As every schoolboy knows, when Columbus reached the New World, he thought he had reached India, which was what he had set out to get to. (At some point he realized, "This is not India." I don't know how long the realization took.)

Well, actually, it may be wrong to accuse Columbus of having been stupid. The ultimate cause of the error was that he had bad information on the size of the Earth. He thought, "It's x number of hours' sailing to India—based on what I know to be the diameter of this planet. I have sailed for about x hours; therefore I must have reached India." But the Earth is bigger than he thought, and he had no way of knowing that there was a very significant land mass between Europe and India (going west). So—maybe a reasonable mistake.

But his naming the New World natives "Indians" has caused a problem for more than 500 years. I imagine the Native Americans never cared for being called (and apparently confused with) Indians from India.

The British get around  the problem by using the term "Red Indian." Of course it would also help if we always, or reliably, used Indian only to refer to someone from India and used Native American (or "First Nations," as I believe they say in Canada) for the other meaning. It also works if you use "East Indian" for the Indians from Asia.

Copyright © 2014.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Social Inequality, Then and Now, There and Here

The British-produced television series Downton Abbey has proved very popular with American public television audiences. Somewhat in the tradition of an earlier series also shown on PBS, Upstairs Downstairs, it's about an English family of high social class and depicts the dramas in the lives of both the family (the "upstairs" part) and their servants ("downstairs").

Since Downton Abbey begins in 1912, when Lord Robert and his family receive the news of the sinking of the Titanic (and thus the loss of the heir to the family's title and property), we can say it shows life as it was 100 years ago. The lives of the family members who live in the grand house, Downton Abbey, are contrasted with the lives of those downstairs—the family's many servants who include a butler, a housekeeper, a cook, many subordinate kitchen servants, a valet, a lady's maid, a chauffeur, footmen, and more.

The family (and their guests) eat sumptuous food; whereas the servants eat simpler food.

The family eat their food off splendid china, silverware, crystal, and so forth. It's not too clearly shown but we can be sure the servants eat off more rustic china, and so forth.

The family have better clothes, and they don't dress themselves—don't button their buttons nor tie their ties--because that's what the servants are for.

Where does the hereditary wealth and power of this and other, similar familes originally come from? Sometimes it stems from the grant of land by the king to an ancestor, 400 or 500 years ago. Or the family may be descended from the conquering Normans who seized all of England in 1066 and thus had the power to take the land from the Saxon nobles who had previously possessed it.

There are other cultures with similar and perhaps even greater social inequality, for example India, with its caste system (now officially and/or in principle abolished) or Ecuador, where the people of native blood, the Indios, are discriminated against and have a very lowly status.

People in England, at least before the system began to change after the First World War, took all this inequality and the class system for granted. People who live under such a system usually accept, with little or no questioning, that there are one's "betters," who are worthy of their superior wealth and power. The idea has even been promulgated that all this is divinely ordained, that God decreed or created a hierarchical system.

I write this from the perspective of an American of the 21st century. Not that there is not and never has been any social inequality in America, or any class system--there is in fact considerably inequality of wealth and it has been worsening--but Americans do not believe that one's station is part of one's fate in life and decreed at (and by) birth. There is no hereditary privilege similar to the right to serve in the British House of Lords, which was in fact recently abolished. This was put in our Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal." And Americans have always had faith that under our system it was possible to rise. In the Great Britain of Downton Abbey, a man could achieve wealth through business but he might still not be completely accepted by the aristocracy. He would still lack the "breeding."

Thus, inevitably, I think that an American watching Downton Abbey has to find the social-class system, as depicted there, quite a curiosity.

Copyright © 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Guns, Killing, Hunting

Regular readers of this blog probably have a good idea of how I feel about guns: I think guns are horrible, appalling, loathsome things, and I hope to continue my record of never having touched one.

Nearly everyone is prepared to sanction gun ownership by hunters. I don't even approve of hunting. There may very well be some inborn and inbred instinct to hunt. Certainly for much of the million-year history of the genus Homo (as in Homo sapiens), human beings killed animals for their food, and in the course of that million years developed better and better tools (in this context known as weapons) for doing so.

It's only been 10,000 years since the twin, revolutionary inventions of agriculture and domestication of animals (the latter, of course, not precluding the killing of animals, but when we slaughter a domestic animal that does not constitute hunting) precluded the need to forage for edible plants and hunt animals. (We now know that our species can live without eating animal protein, but I don't think there were very many vegetarians prior to that 10,000-year-ago watershed. And I do not choose here to go into any of the pros and cons of a vegetarian diet.)

So my point is that possibly we have an instinct to hunt and/or kill animals. That is why, I think, when a driver more or less deliberately chooses to hit an animal in the road—yes, it happens, I am sure, and maybe not rarely—maybe he is just giving rein to his hunting instinct. I call it being "the great white hunter," in allusion to the image of the Western man on safari in Africa. You can also view it as machismo, though what is so macho about killing some poor little squirrel or opossum with your car is open to argument.

But we in so-called developed countries usually rely on others to provide our food, animal or not; so to a large degree the skills, instincts, etc., of a hunter are no longer needed, but evolution does not work quickly enough that we lose traits that are no longer needed.

Still, all that being said, I still don't sympathize very much with hunting nor with the people who want to  hunt. Hunters say they appreciate, even love, wildlife. I say, if you love something, you don't kill it.

Copyright © 2014

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Origins of Some Technology Terms

  • Google. The word in this exact form was originated by Google, the company that makes the search engine Google; but I presume that the name is an alteration of the word googol, which is used for the very large number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The origin of the word googol is, according to the story, that it was uttered by Edward Sirotta, the nephew of the mathematician Edward Kasner.
  • Yahoo. In Johnathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver's fourth voyage takes him to a land where there is a "race of filthy, loathsome brutes" [Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia], called the Yahoos, who resemble human beings. The intelligent and admirable race in that land are the Houyhnhnms, who resemble horses. The Houyhnhnms have tamed the Yahoos, who Swift intended to represent his rather cynical view of the human race.
  • Bluetooth. This was an epithet of several Scandinavian or Viking kings or chieftains, and especially Harald Bluetooth, who was a 10th-century king of Norway and Denmark. Some of the high-ranking Vikings did indeed have blue teeth, due to the painful custom of putting colored inserts into the teeth, for decoration, to look formidable, and to show bravery in the face of this painful procedure. According to Wikipedia, "the Bluetooth logo consists of the Nordic runes for his initials. . . ."

Copyright © 2014.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Politically Correct Songs for Christmas

On this Christmas Day, I was reflecting that many of our traditional Christmas songs are not politically correct and therefore need a bit of revision. So, here are a few of my suggested changes:

  • The Little Drummer Child
  • Frosty the Snowperson
  • We Three Monarchs of Orient (Are)
  •  (I'm Dreaming of an) Integrated Christmas
Copyright (c) 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pare a Pair of Pears

I noticed a linguistic curiosity today. No, it doesn't have to do with pears or paring them; it has to do with pairs.

We speak of a pair of gloves, a pair of socks, a pair of shoes, even a pair of dice; and those are all clearly sets, or pairs, of two things.

But we also speak of a pair of pants, a pair of scissors, a pair of glasses—eyeglasses, that is. In these cases it's much less clear that we're dealing with two things. I do have a pair of kitchen scissors that separates into two parts--sometimes too readily—presumably for ease of cleaning. But these pairs are normally not two separable things. So why do we treat them, linguistically, as two? Maybe it is because they are sort of bifurcated. You could say that about a pair of pants, pretty clearly. And maybe scissors. But it might be stretching things a little bit to apply this theory of mine to glasses.

Well, people who study language (and I include myself here) come to recognize that you often can't apply "logic" to language. Any language is its own system, and it has very little regard for any external system such as what we call "logic."

Copyright © 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who Spoke for the Indians?

In the 1850s, the 1830s—in fact for decades before the Civil War—there were well-organized, powerful, and certainly very vocal individuals and groups calling for an end to slavery—at least in the North.

On the other hand, the Indians (Native Americans) were being treated very badly and even exterminated; and I have never heard that there was even one individual who raised his voice in protest against this.

The treatment of the Indians is a sad, disgusting, tragic, criminal, and extremely long story. The saga could just go on and on.

Just a very few examples: During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the Cherokees and several other tribes living in the Southeast of the United States were forcibly removed. With no more than the possessions they could carry on their backs they were forced to walk all the way to Oklahoma, even through bad winter weather. Many, especially the oldest and the youngest, died of disease or starvation. (Once they got there, they were told, Oklahoma, or "Indian Territory," would be theirs forever; and that turned out to be just one of innumerable, countless promises to the Indians that turned out to be totally meaningless.)

Similarly, in 1864, the Navajo were also "removed," and made to walk several hundred miles, and for a while were impounded in basically a concentration camp where nearly half of them died. (There is a lasting legacy of this in that all Navajo now alive are descendents of some 2,000 who survived this so-called Long Walk and so are inbred and suffering from diseases that result from the build-up of recessive genes.)

When the Indians were not being made to go on long forced marches like these, they were otherwise being killed by being given smallpox-infected blankets; being shot; having their villages burned and their crops destroyed; or having the buffalo, their source of food and nearly everything else in the case of the Plains Indians, exterminated. Or once on reservations and removed from their hunting grounds and thus no longer able to provide for themselves, they were not receiving food destined for them because of corrupt Indian agents.

Indians who somehow survived all the genocide by shooting and starvation had to undergo having their culture destroyed. Indian children, once in the power of whites—missionaries or teachers in special Indian schools—were forbidden to speak their language. Along with their native religious beliefs, which of course were also suppressed by the missionaries, language is virtually synonymous with culture, so that to deprive a people of their language is to virtually destroy their culture.

Of course I am viewing all this from the perspective of a  relatively enlightened person of the 21st century. But where was the person who was a bit ahead of his time, or was more humane, and who said, "These are people, they deserve to live, it's wrong to kill them, to try to wipe them out"?

Copyright © 2013.