Unusual Uses and Usages

Day 11: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: would words have meaning if there weren’t anyone around to read them?  This is an alternative version of the better-known riddle, “if a tree falls in the woods with no one to hear it, then do I still sound pretentious asking you this?”  Zak, you might feel confident about how to answer both of those questions, but as you’re reading this there’s probably a slight problem.  I’m guessing no one is around willing to hear your answer.

“No one,” by the way, makes a great nickname.  That’s why Odysseus told a cyclops his name was “Cleverness” that one time before he attacked it.  When the cyclops’ friends asked it if everything was okay, it shouted out, “No one is attacking me!”  Get it?

I guess you had to be there… in ancient Greece… where the word for “cleverness” sounded almost exactly like the word for “no one.”  A classic miscommunication.

Classicists are kind of funny people these days.  They’re like Harry Potter fans, only more hipster.  They all have basically the same quirky personality, some of them are under the impression that they’re descendants of gods, and they share all sorts of clever inside jokes and references that mostly just classicists get.  So more or less like Harry Potter fans.  If you, reader, happen to be a part of that niche little audience, maybe you’d like to indulge yourself with a quick poem by Hilda Doolittle.

But while reading out-dated poetry is great, if there are people around to hear you, I would recommend a more social activity.

One great way to spend a stormy evening is playing telephone with your friends.  If anyone is unfamiliar, telephone is a game of transmission: players gather in a circle, and one person discreetly whispers a particular message of some kind into the ear of their neighbor.  The message is then carefully transmitted all the way around the circle.  At that point the original version of the message is revealed for all to hear, shocking participants with how much it has changed.  The purpose of this exercise is evidently to make light of the fallibility of human expression.

But maybe you don’t agree that telephone is such a “great” activity.  That’s cool.  These days, plenty of people disagree about the proper usage of the word “great.”

There was also that time Odysseus was in the underworld and he met a crazy old dude named Tiresias.  Tiresias told him to carry his oar so far in-land that people would think it was a winnowing-fan for separating the wheat from the chaff.  He was assuming the people in the country were so domestic that they would hardly even recognize the accouterments of pirating.  It’s possible this has some kind of deep metaphorical meaning that made it worthy of entering the cannon of classical world literature, but it’s probably just a miscommunication.

“And I will give you a sign, clear indeed: when another traveler meets you and asks whether it is a winnowing-fan you carry on your shining shoulder, plant your handy oar into the earth and offer a sacrifice to lord Poseidon…” Homer

Really, I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t use an oar as a winnowing-fan.  You could also use a hairbrush as a musical instrument.  Come to think of it, there are a lot of alternative uses for everyday objects.  Like fish, for example.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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