Saturday, December 5, 2015

Tales from the Uncanny Valley -- The Colonel Carries On #8

Epigraph: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you may not have grasped the situation.” --Jean Kerr

An old miser kept a tame jackdaw that used to steal pieces of money and hide them in a hole. Observing this, a cat asked, "Why do you hoard up those round shining things of which you can make no use?" "Why," the jackdaw said, "My master has a whole chest full, and makes no more use of them than I do." -Jonathan Swift, satirist (1667-1745)

In May 1865, after the major Confederate armies had surrendered, General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in a personal letter: “I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers ... tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

The word nonplussed has an odd origin. Its first form was as a noun phrase borrowed directly from the classical Latin nōn plūs, not more or no further. As two words it appears first in an epistle by the Jesuit scholar Robert Parsons in 1582. He meant by it a state in which no more can be said or done, in which a person was unable to proceed in speech or action, resulting in perplexity or puzzlement.

Around the same time, it became a verb, to nonplus, meaning to bring someone to a standstill as a result of being confused or perplexed. The adjective nonplussed (note the double “s”) soon appeared.

In recent decades the expression has come to be misunderstood and misused, at least in America, as meaning calm, indifferent, undisturbed, unfazed, or unimpressed, as in the following examples:

“She was very nonplussed and was happy to wait in the queue.” (Unbothered.)

“MS Dhoni is popularly known in cricketing circles as ‘Captain Cool’ for his nonplussed demeanour in tense situations.” (Calm.)

But what about “I’m completely nonplused by most contemporary architecture”? The context (Wall Street Journal) made clear that the writer meant unimpressed rather than confused.

The takeaway? Stay tuned. “Wrong often becomes the new right.”

There’s an old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” “Then don’t do this.” It came back to me as current events evoked the saying, “When certain thoughts become unbearable, think other thoughts.”

“Money is barely less detestable than the lack of it.” --after Katherine Mansfield

The first cookie fortune after a meal of Chinese food was unsurprising -- “Dull plodding comes before brilliant achievement” -- but the second was a nonplusser: “To fly, let go of the shit that weighs you down.” A third came close: “Even a day that sucks is a gift.” Whatever happened to “Help! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese cookie factory”?

Bleak Zen advice: “Climb no mountain to its peak, and follow no road to its end, for from its peak you cannot see the mountain, and all roads lead nowhere.”

More prosaic advice: “Good manners and basic decency often boil down to timing. If you owe me money, I will probably ask you for it -- but not at your wife’s funeral.” --Jonah Goldberg

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