Guest Post: Word of the Day

Guest Post: Word of the Day October 21, 2020

This post is from regular commenter Martin Zeichner – thanks muchly, and don’t forget you can submit guest post requests to me through the contact details above. Today, he muses about words, particularly “social”, and in this context, all of the influences on us humans:

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to play with words. Wordplay has had a long and illustrious tradition. In all languages, not only English. Wordplay in literature goes back as far as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Wordplay in spoken language is probably even older than it is in the written record. Wordplay certainly exists in Shakespeare’s plays and in the works of Lewis Carroll aka C.L. Dodgson. But also, in such disparate people as Gilbert and Sullivan, Molière, and Groucho Marx. Not just in the theater, but also anyone that uses words to find their way through life can be said to play with words.

The word of the day is ‘social’.  Sort of like the secret word that was held in the duck’s bill on “You Bet Your Life”.

We have social engineering, social distancing, social security, social media, and more: social history, social studies, social-ism, social democracy.

In some of those terms, the word ‘social’ is used as a marketing term to sell the term to others. In some, it is merely descriptive.

Social this and social that. At what point does the word ‘social’ lose it’s meaning? When does it, as a meme, fall out of fashion? I’m going to guess that it takes a while. Centuries in some cases. Many of the words and constructions in Shakespeare’s works have gone out of fashion. This is what makes Shakespeare hard to read and makes high school students lives difficult.

Some words have come and gone. The word ‘bad’ can mean either good or bad, depending on the context. Same with the word ‘dope’. The same word can have different connotations, which connotation is sometimes indicated by the context, but when it isn’t, it can be a source for humor or wordplay.

I once had a teacher in college that said that puns were the highest form of humor. I have also seen it written that puns are the lowest form of humor. This same teacher was also of the opinion that puns embodied people’s revenge on their language; the way that language restricts our thoughts.  So which is it? Are puns the highest or the lowest form of humor? I take the position that they, in themselves,  are neither one. I am grateful to that teacher for stimulating my thoughts on the subject. I have said that puns, or double entendres, are examples of people’s anxiety about being misunderstood, In a similar way; slapstick comedy is an example of people’s anxiety about being in pain or injured. This led me to a philosophy of humor that centered on the word ‘anxiety’.

It also led me to want to read up on the philosophy of humor. I found that, up until the twentieth century, philosophers were somewhat reticent in thinking about humor. For a long time, it seems that Henri Bergson was one of a few philosophers that explored this field. I’m not sure why this should be.  It could be that humor is not considered to have a place among the traditional subjects that philosophy is about.

Henri Bergson, for instance, seems to have based his theory of humor on having viewed Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times”.  It certainly is a very funny film, full of traditional physical comedy. But what makes it interesting to philosophers is the way that Chaplin interacts with twentieth-century machinery. In this way, one can see the comic influence on Lucille Ball in the famous scene on the chocolate assembly line or even John Patrick Stanley in the 1990 film “Joe Versus the Volcano”.

According to my teacher, this business of basing a larger theory of art on a single work is reminiscent of how a Theory of Drama is based on a production in Ancient Greece of Sophocles’ play “Oedipus Rex”.  Apparently, the classical Aristotelian Unities of time, place and action held sway in playwrighting for many centuries. Plays written in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries were judged as to whether they conformed to those three Unities. This meant that a play should present a story in the unity of time, no jumping around in time is permitted (no flashbacks or flash-forwards), place, no jumping around in space is permitted, and action. The action should proceed according to a traditional understanding of the actions of individuals in a story. Obviously, no modern film or TV show could exist under those constraints.  The only one of the three classical unities that survives, is the one of place, usually for budgetary considerations. It is cheaper to be able to design a set that does not change throughout the course of the story.

Stories written for the theater tend to influence stories written in other media. And vice versa. Which artist influences other artists becomes a popular subject for critics. Entire genres of work influence each other. Music is influenced by painting. Painting is influenced by photography, photography is influenced by politics, politics is influenced, in turn, by music. Everyone is influenced by everyone else that they come into contact with. And we come into contact with many different people, through work or friendship, through social media, through radio, television, and films.

When I was in elementary school, I had teachers that were of the opinion that the human species had ended its evolutionary process. I don’t think that that is the case. I think that humanity is evolving at a more rapid pace than ever. It has been for the past 10,000 years. However, it is a cultural (technological) evolution, not a biological evolution. Cultural evolution has the potential to change our species as much as biological evolution does.

In 1895, HG Wells, in “The Time Machine”, hypothesized that in the far distant future, humanity will be divided into two distinct species, the Morlocks and the Eloi. In 1960, a film of “The Time Machine” was released. In many ways, it appeared to have been influenced by the monster films of the 1950s. Over a half-century earlier, HG Wells was probably influenced either directly or indirectly, by Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. I do not know how much of this influence was known by the filmmakers. However, I think that HG Wells’ flirtation with Fabian Socialism still haunts us.

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