Sunday, November 30, 2003


There's been some comment lately about Blogistan about some bit of political correctness in which the terms "Master" and "Slave" should no longer be used in tech contexts, because they're racially-charged terms or something. Most commenters, such as Kevin Drum and Jeff Kahane, think this is taking linguistic sensitivity too far, and I agree.

(BTW, is Jeff Kahane a new commenter over at Highered Intelligence? What's up with that? Not that it's a problem. I think. Hmmmm…)

Anyway, in one of the comments to his own post, Kevin says this: "It just encourages people to look for things to be offended by, a behavior that is distressingly common among all groups these days (including white males, I might add)." This reminds me of a weird tale from my college years, which still befuddles me whenever I think about it.

In my senior year I took a class in Analytic Philosophy, which very heavily involves matters of language and how language works and what metaphysical relation, if any, exists between words and objects. In particular, we spent some time on the work of Saul Kripke, a philosopher who held that "Names" actually pick out the same object in all possible worlds. If memory serves, a thought-experiment we delved into in this class went like this: "If a meteor had demolished life on Earth such that humans had never evolved, and thus the English language had never existed, would the word cat still refer to cats?"

(You begin to see just why I'm currently unemployed.)

So, one day after spending this class debating whether or not words had "absolute" meanings, a friend and I decided that it would be neat if there was a word that had literally no meaning whatsoever. It was a word devoid of meaning: it would not even have meaning if you used it in any particular context. And the word we cooked up to serve this position was this:


(You begin to detect now the roots of my sense of humor, I hope.)

So we kept this joke around, mainly as a bit of philosophical goofiness: a word with no meaning! None at all! What could be more harmless than this? Well, I was about to find out, because during the subsequent semester, I was spreading the joke of Phneh to some of the cooler folks in the music department, where I liked to hang out. And then I scrawled Phneh on a piece of paper and stuck it on the bulletin board in the student lounge of the music building, and then I pretty much forgot about it.

Until a week or so later, when some other guy was sitting in the lounge and suddenly announced, "I'm taking that sign down. It's bothering me."

I, of course, was completely baffled: This guy was claiming to be offended by a sign bearing a single word that he could not possibly have ever seen before, since the word hadn't even existed until my philosophy buddy and I had coined it in the first place. I thought nothing of it, although I did get a bit nonplused when he in fact did remove the sign. So I, striking a blow for All Good Things, made another such sign and stuck it right back up. Which he tore down as soon as he saw it. And so on and so forth, except this guy actually decided to make some kind of personal crusade over this. Inevitably, this character used some connection he had with the Administration by serving in the Student Government to "take over" the bulletin board in question. He typed up an Official Notice on a fake college letterhead (and I remember him making a big deal of bringing in his girlfriend's laptop just so everybody would see him doing this, and this was back when students with laptops were pretty rare) that Bulletin Boards were for Official Use Only, et cetera.

This, of course, annoyed a lot more folks than myself, people who took this to mean they couldn't put up signs advertising their used textbooks or parties they were hosting that weekend or various things. Another person actually went to the Dean of Student Affairs or whatever on whose authority Mr. Bulletin Board had claimed to be acting, and was informed that no such policy existed. And ultimately, I ended up receiving a stern lecture from the music building secretary, a woman named Ruth, if memory serves (who was the real authority in the building). She basically told me that she shouldn't have to take time out of her busy day to adjudicate a dispute "over a nonsense word!", and she was less than amused when I asked why she was getting involved in something that everybody concerned already knew was nonsense.

This stern lecture did afford me one bit of amusement later on, because after she'd finished with me, Ruth tore down Mr. Bulletin Board's "Official Notice" (which other people had covered with caustic bits of graffiti) and stormed out. Then, later on, Mr. Bulletin Board himself came in and got huffy when he noticed that his "Official Notice" was no longer there. He demanded that I tell him who took it down, because it was, you know, "Official College Business", which allowed me to tell him: "Ruth took it down, and I suspect she is a better arbiter of what is and is not 'official' than you are."

A few friends told me that I should print up a ton of flyers with Phneh on them and just start putting them up on every campus bulletin board I could find, but by this time I was bored of the whole business and had moved on in my head to other things. There was a coda, though, that I think of anytime some weird PC controversy erupts. When it had all just about died down, someone actually asked Mr. Bulletin Board why he decided to make such a crusade over a word that had no meaning. I have never forgotten his response:

"If it really has no meaning, then I'm free to interpret it as offensive."

A month or two later, I was relating this whole tale to my philosophy buddy, who had missed it all because he had left our college after the first semester that year. He found the whole thing completely hilarious, and when I told him Mr. Bulletin Board's idea that he was free to interpret Phneh as "offensive", my friend rubbed his chin and said, "I don't get it. Why would you voluntarily offend yourself?"

Well, I've been wondering that myself, ever since. Maybe the folks who think that "Master" and "Slave" should be stricken from the OED can answer it. Or the poor guy who once nearly lost his job because he used the word "niggardly" correctly in a sentence.

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