Thing Explainer

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Most students on campus will agree that our Director of Academics, Dr. Jason Nabi, is pretty good at explaining “things.” He can explain why a teacher gave a student a specific grade, he can explain the class schedule, he can explain why Mr. Fickley lectures with such enthusiasm, he can explain just about anything related to literature and writing. During our annual Shakespeare festival he set out to explain something big: Shakespeare’s use of words! Enjoy his remarks.


Good morning everyone, and welcome to what I consider the crown jewel of our month-long Bardfest, the Miller school-level championship of the National Shakespeare Competition.

Has anyone noticed that the heat’s not on? Let’s warm up the room, and some vocal cords while we’re at it. I would like to ask everyone to please repeat after me:

Gloomy. Zany. Undress. Rant. Eyeball. Mimic. Gnarled. Moonbeam. Swagger. Unreal. Puking. Skim milk.

I’ll tell you a little more about these words in a minute. But first, I wanted to ask you to raise your hand if, this past week, you have felt tortured by Shakespeare. … I thought as much, and so I thought I’d share something with you. Has anyone ever heard of this book?

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Thing Explainer. The author Randall Munroe takes the 1,000 most-used words in the English language, and limiting himself to only those words, he explains complicated things, like microwave ovens, gravity, and tectonic plates! For example, the words “washing” and “machine” are too specialized and not common enough to make the top thousand, so instead he describes a washing machine as “a box that makes clothes smell better.” Instead of cockpit, he says “stuff you touch to fly a sky boat.” Instead of “pen” or “pencil,” he says “writing sticks.” The Large Hadron Collider becomes “Big tiny thing hitter.” And so on.

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I bring this up because I think this would have been William Shakespeare’s worst nightmare:  it would have been absolute torture to limit himself to only a thousand words, in order to explain the most complicated things in the world:  human beings, in all their glory, insanity, agony, and ecstasy. In fact, across Shakespeare’s lifetime output of 38 plays and 154 sonnets, he had about 40,000 different words in his vocabulary, which is twice as many as the average, modern-day adult English speaker has in his active vocabulary.

40,000 words! What’s more, 2,000 of these words, Shakespeare himself invented.

40,000 words! What’s more, 2,000 of these words, Shakespeare himself invented. He brought them into existence. Think about that. There’s Shakespeare, at his writing desk, in the 1590s, he needs a more accurate, vivid way to describe something in his latest play, and then voila -- “skim milk”! Eyeball. Swagger. Gloomy. Moonbeam. In fact, all of the words we just recited, we owe them to Shakespeare.

This is interesting to think about. Does it mean that people, before the 1590s, weren’t puking? Or that everybody in Elizabethan England was without swagger? Or that they didn’t see moonbeams? Or that they didn’t have eyeballs to see moonbeams with?! That just seems … what’s the word … unreal.  

And it is. A thing can exist, of course, even if there is not a word to name it. But this tends to make human beings extraordinarily uncomfortable, because it can be dangerous not to name the world around us, and because the act of naming helps us to see things in the world we hadn’t realized were there.

A thing can exist, of course, even if there is not a word to name it. But this tends to make human beings extraordinarily uncomfortable, because it can be dangerous not to name the world around us, and because the act of naming helps us to see things in the world we hadn’t realized were there.
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For example, you’ve probably heard about the Eskimo language, and how in its Inuit dialect, there are several dozen words for snow. This isn’t some perverse Arctic SAT ritual. Having such a vocabulary and being able to use it precisely could mean the difference between life or death. Think about the difference between piegnartoq, which means “the snow that is good for driving a sled,” and matsaaruti, which means “wet snow that can ice over the blades of a sled,” and you will know what I mean.

Naming the world is how we exert control over it and avoid its dangers. But it’s also how we appreciate its powers and its beauty and its weirdness. And, finally, it’s how we share all this wisdom with others. Just think of some of the extremely specific ideas that English speakers have tried to nail down with a single word:

  • Not only to do we have a word that means “next to last” (penultimate), but we also have a word that means “next to next to last” (antepenultimate)

  • Then there’s the word jumentous:  smelling strongly of horse urine

  • Or qualtagh:  the first person you encounter after leaving your home

  • The word callipygian is an adjective which means having beautiful buttocks, to the point of being sculpture-worthy

  • There’s even a word for, not just adoration of Shakespeare, but excessive adoration of Shakespeare:  that word is bardolatry.

But, Dr. Nabi, you ask, why on earth would I use the word callipygian, instead of saying something that would give me more street cred, like bootylicious? After all, not only is bootylicious synonymous, it is a perfectly accepted word, and in fact gained official entry into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2008.  

Great question. A tough and important question, as it happens to be about how we go about describing other people’s bodies, which is especially critical in this day and age, with its confusing mixture of Eyes Open and Mouths Shut. That is to say:  we live in a world full of people putting their bodies out there on display, and simultaneously full of people pretending they don’t see anything so that they won’t say anything so that there won’t be insult, harassment, or assault.

You’ve probably heard that a word has shades of meaning, in addition to its central meaning. And wouldn’t you know it? We have a word for the central meaning of a word (denotation), just as we have a word for the shades of meaning that a word can have (connotation). You can think of connotation as the “baggage” that a word carries with it. That baggage can come from different sources:  what the word used to mean, or how it was used historically, or even from what other words it sounds like. “Bootylicious,” you can hear, is a back-formation from two other words. One of those words is “delicious.” If you describe someone as bootylicious, whether you intend it or not, you are implying that they are merely an object of your appetite. As you objectify them in this way, you are limiting your understanding of this person to mere physicality, while leaving spirit and intellect by the wayside. All this… even if you meant to pay a compliment!

“Callipygian,” on the other hand, is disarmingly, charmingly geeky. It suggests that you think the person you are complimenting is a work of art, that you appreciate the work ethic that probably went into the sculpting of their physical form. Using this word also says something about you:  that, while you know a thing or two about ancient Western civilization, you’re not so hopelessly intellectual that you don’t appreciate the physical world you inhabit.

As Sir John Falstaff, the “fat knight,” says, in the ultimate statement of humanistic body-positivity, “Banish plump Jack, and you banish all the world.”

I could go on about this, BUT I think you get the point:  the words you use say a lot about how you see the world. Words are valuable, in both senses of that word. Not only do they carry values with them, they are extremely useful because they allow for remarkable specificity as we express ourselves and our place in this world.

It is just this kind of precision that Shakespeare is constantly after:  Sometimes he nails down the perfect description through the use of a single word. When a word is not enough, he expands to an entire line. When a line is not enough, then there is a whole monologue to completely capture a thought or idea.

It is just this kind of precision that Shakespeare is constantly after:  Sometimes he nails down the perfect description through the use of a single word. When a word is not enough, he expands to an entire line. When a line is not enough, then there is a whole monologue to completely capture a thought or idea.

Speaking of monologues, we are in for a treat today! What I love about this competition is that it sends all of you back to the text itself. No SparkNotes. No Shmoop. No NoFear. No mere summary of meaning could possibly compare to the new understandings that the words as-they-are are forcing you to come to grips with.

As you listen to these competitors, I encourage you to hang on every word. There is something perfect and irreducible about these words exactly as they are. Think about the work these words are doing to get you to see something about the world around you.

Quick demonstration of what I mean. I took a line from Shakespeare and re-wrote it according to the Thing Explainer rules:  I limited myself to the thousand most-common words in English. This is what I got; see if you recognize it:

Oh friend I would rather love, friend I would rather love, why are you you? Why do you go by the name you go by? Why can’t I stop saying your name, the sound of which being repeated so often makes me sound like an animal in pain? No matter how many times I say your name, it does not make you appear in front of me, and you not being here makes me question whether you are a thing at all. Maybe you are nothing.

All of that, mind you, is in a single line, and that single line, of course is:

“Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

The job of literary analysis, the pleasure of it, is just this kind of unpacking:  to discover and reflect upon the extraordinary amount of meaning that even just a few words can bear. While Shakespeare’s language can be difficult, we must accept that, as a fellow human being, he is trying to help us overcome life’s difficulties through the powerful expression of the human condition.

The Romeo line is Shakespeare’s second-most-famous line. I also ran his first-most-famous line through the Thing Explainer. Do you know what I got?

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To be or not to be, that is the question

Some thoughts are so devastating, so critical, so all-important, that only the plainest English will do. This is the great power and attraction of Shakespeare:  he can speak so many languages. He is fluent in the language of the common man, of the court, of shipbuilders, of gravediggers, of girls in love, of women scorned, of philosophers.

Some thoughts are so devastating, so critical, so all-important, that only the plainest English will do. This is the great power and attraction of Shakespeare:  he can speak so many languages.

Speaking of philosophers, don’t let the simplicity of Hamlet’s words fool you. “To be or not to be.” Their plainness is highly strategic:  the simple words are a backdrop to the complexity of the question itself; they are a shallow surface that attracts us to the profundity of the question, and to the depths (maybe even darknesses) of the the potential answer. Once this line is uttered, once the question is asked, once these words happen, the world itself takes on a different shape:  we exist, but we could also not exist. What kind of life, knowing these words and these worlds, will we live?

I’ve said enough words for now … about 1,800, give or take. I hope that, at least from some of these words, as well as from the words about to come from that the mouths of our performers, that you carry with you a new understanding of your own verbal superpowers.

 

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