Monday, December 28, 2009

Yes, this post is about failure, but not in the way you think

One of my high school English teachers was fond of saying that, to a poet, there are no synonyms. Not only does each word have its own range of connotations and implications, but the very sounds in a word can affect that word's impact. Consider the following sentences:
  • "I made a boo-boo." This is something you might say when making a mistake that is nearly inconsequential, and is easily forgotten, like if you were making cookies and a glob of dough fell on the counter.
  • "I made a mistake." This has a wide range of possible uses, because it is fairly neutral as far as connotations go. If we're making cookies, this could be something like turning the oven to the wrong temperature, or just forgetting to turn it on.
  • "I fucked up." This seems to imply that the project was a failure. Maybe you cooked the cookies too long, or forgot to add baking soda. Whatever happened, the cookies might be edible, but they are not exactly "delicious."
  • "I just totally botched this mother fucker." This seems to imply that your involvement in the project has made the general situation worse. Not only are the cookies inedible, but the kitchen is a mess, and there is a mess of burnt cookies that need to be cleaned from the bottom of the oven. In the future, you should not be allowed to cook while unsupervised.
So, from a "logical" point of view, each of these sentences means the same thing. But they actually mean rather different things, from the point of view of  how we use language. For each one of these sentences, though, there is a way to convey the same connotative message, while carrying it in a different style. "I have failed at making cookies" has a formality and specificity that is lacking in "I fucked up."

To a comedian, this difference between connotations is something easily exploited for jokes, because it can be downright funny when someone uses "incorrect" phrasing to describe a situation. If a general discovers that he is outnumbered two-to-one, it seems proper for him to say, "This is going to be more difficult than I thought," but if he is outnumbered ten-to-one or twenty-to-one, that is more like an attempt at humor. And his soldiers might think he is kind of a dick for it.

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