or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good Intentions

As a (very) general rule, short words can have multiple meanings, sometimes a little galaxy of them quite unrelated to one another, while longer words tend to have one very specific and immutable meaning. This suggests that if you want to be clearly understood and you like to use long words, you must be very sure that you know what these words mean, because there isn't any room for slippage. If you call someone "thin", you could be praising or criticizing them, because the word can be construed either way ("anorexically skinny" or "admirably slender"), and so you have the option of saying, if need be, that your words were misconstrued; but if you call them "skeletal" or "cadaverous", you can only be criticizing.

Here are a couple of sentences from a recent letter to advice columnist Cary Tennis in Salon:

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

I am not absolutely sure of what the writer is trying to say when she says "dissimilation".

Oh, it's a word. It's just not the word that was intended, and worse, I don't think the word that was intended is the right word, either.

It seems to me that the writer means her therapist is not coming out and saying something but instead trying to guide her to an understanding of the situation. The trouble is that "dissimilation" doesn't mean anything like this. To dissimilate is to cause to become different (the verb form of "dissimilar"); it's a term in linguistics (in which the sound of a word changes from its source over time) or biology (in which a complex compound becomes simpler through metabolic breakdown), but is rarely heard outside these contexts.

I expect the writer was aiming for "dissimulation". But that doesn't quite mean what the writer intended. To dissimulate is to feign; to disguise one's true feelings behind a mask. It carries a strong overtone of hypocrisy and untruthfulness, which I don't think is fair to the therapist, who I expect was only trying to help her client.

I'm not sure there is a single word for what the writer was trying to convey. "Indirection" came to mind, but it also has an overtone of evasiveness or shadiness. I think I might have just said something like "roundabout manner" or "lack of directness".

Let this be a warning to you. If you want to speak and write clearly, you must be quite sure that the words in your employ mean what you think they mean.


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