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Worldwide Ace » Why We Fight

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Why We Fight

13 November, 2009 (12:00) | Philosophy

Calvin and Susie argue.

“Jesus fucking Christ, dude! I’m sick of this shit! I don’t want to be in a semantical argument right now!”

“You mean semantic, not semantical,” I stated matter-of-factly.

It was that little statement that defined the difference between us. It was that little statement that would continue to crop up at the most inopportune times over the following months.

“Really?” Leath angrily whined. “Seriously? Fuck you.”

For the record, the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists “semantical” as a proper variation of “semantic.” Every online dictionary redirects to “semantic,” but they also cite the American Heritage and Random House dictionaries as saying it’s a proper variation. Why anyone would want to tack on two extra letter and an extra syllable to an already lengthy and specifically used word, I have no clue, but it is technically correct.

SIDE NOTE: When growing up, the word “technically” appeared with a new usage in the common lexicon. Traditionally, it’s defined as “pertaining to a technique, art or skill.” This, of course, is not how it’s used. I, and many of my friends, use technically to mean that one can argue the veracity of the statement on some level, but it’s not true on all levels. Technically is often used as the opposite of actually. For example, I can technically get a copy of Adobe Photoshop CS4 for free, but because it’s illegally downloaded, it doesn’t actually work that way. My dad gibes me about this usage since he’s been trained in a technical field (architecture), and I’ve taken to rolling my eyes. After all, there’s no appropriate synonym that so succinctly encapsulates that usage.

Regardless of its status in dictionaries, using “semantical” in an academic setting is more likely to elicit head scratching, to garner red marks, to exact derision, and to be met with laughter. The technical correctness of the word is completely irrelevant to the way in which people react to it, and therein lies the rub.

My myriad linguist friends often argue that whatever is the accepted usage is proper, and, for the most part, they’re correct. But certain settings and situations require a more exact and definitive usage. In scholastic enterprises, even in the realm of linguistics, using a word colloquially or in a newer fashion is often detrimental to one’s point.

Though I slip technically into my vocabulary when speaking, I rarely use it in my writing for exactly that reason—excepting, of course, when I’m using it to prove a point. If using a word detracts from my point and forces me to pause an explain the word, then it’s the wrong word to use even if the word itself is not wrong.

Several years ago, Ironman and I were arguing the proper usage of the word “myriad.”

“You have myriad things, not a myriad of things,” I yelled.

“Myriad is a noun, not an adjective,” he cried back.

“This is getting us nowhere,” I said exasperated. “There’s only one solution…”

“The OED,” we chorused.

The Oxford English Dictionary is the be all, end all of lexicographical sources. It lists every definition and cites their sources. It offer etymology and roots, and attempts to specify exactly where each usage came into being as well as its popularity at any given time. I’ve often argued that dictionaries can be as wrong as people, but the OED is about as close to perfect as it gets. The OED even has an excellent online edition to which one can subscribe for a paltry fee of just under $300 in the US (which, given the dynamic nature of the OED, is both understandable and yet still vastly overpriced for those of us who would really use it well).

Five minutes later, the OED gave us an utterly unsatisfying answer. We were both right. Myriad is both an adjective, as I prefer to use it, and a noun, as Ironman preferred.

Neither of us was happy with that result, though we both dropped the argument with a grudging respect for the other and a better understanding of the word.

“What’s the purpose of argument?” I asked Leath, aggravated at his pigheaded and arrogant unwillingness to acknowledge my point.

“Ideally,” he explained, “it’s supposed to end with both people knowing more and understanding fresh perspectives.” It was a perfect definition in my eyes. “But,” and there was always a but, “most people come into it with their minds made up, so it’s just a waste of time. I really hate it.”

I stayed silent for a minute, trying to formulate the proper response.

“I mean, I spend 90% of my time in futile arguments,” he continued. “And it really wears me out.”

“Then why do you argue?” I asked, surprised at my competitive contrarian.

“I don’t fucking know. I have to spend a lot of time fighting the urge to argue even though I don’t enjoy it.”

“Why?” I queried, honestly curious. He didn’t answer, though I was pretty sure his answer is going to say, because I know I’m right.

I love to argue. I play devil’s advocate like it’s going out of style. The challenge of formulating a new strategy and taking different approaches to each new argument, even when I don’t believe in the side I take, is like turning my life into an everlasting game of verbal Scribblenauts.

Even when I’m arguing more for the play of it than because I believe what I’m saying, I feel like I come away from every argument with a better understanding of myself, the topic, my sparring partner, and the liquidity of language and logic. It’s a means of adopting new intellectual building blocks to shore up my foundation of knowledge. Often, I know I’m wrong and will readily admit it if pushed at all, but being wrong doesn’t detract from the benefits of the exercise.

Leath is clearly one of those people who doesn’t share my joy for arguing. Hell, even I get fed up with myself and the arguments I find my way into sometimes, so it’s easy to understand how others might.

I’m starting to think that Leath hates arguing for the same reason he thinks its pointless: he sees it as a competition rather than an exercise.

Leath and I often play board games. He’s boastful and arrogant when he dominates and whiny and sullen when he’s losing. He told me he likes games with dice because they make a game seem dynamic. I think he really likes games with randomness because even if he hasn’t figured the game out, it makes him feel like he has a chance.

In arguments, there is no chance. There is right, there is wrong, and there is neither. If the topic falls into the latter category, it can be never ending (see: is there a god). In the prior two cases, there is usually a winner and a loser, and the convictions with which we take the wrong side can often be so deep that losing is painful and draining.

The one good aspect of the mumbo-jumbo espoused in the new age novel The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield was the explanation of the Fourth Insight, or so it seemed to my hormone-addled 14 year-old brain. Entitled the Struggle for Power, the Fourth Insight puts the exact nature of these draining arguments into a visual mode that I could easily envision by describing what the auras of two people battling for supremacy looked like. To the protagonist, it was suddenly clear that though one person came out on top and ended with more energy, there was a net loss and there needed to be a better way.

His solution, which followed in the rest of the book, was pure unadulterated bullshit, but stopping to look at interactions around me with the Fourth Insight as a frame did convince me that there must be a solution that’s actually applicable. My solution eventually came in the form of adjusting the way I entered arguments and the means of always taking something positive away, especially in a loss. To use the old adage, I merely applied “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” to my mental state.

“You don’t have to stop,” I told him. “When I make these minor corrections or point out errors or inconsistencies, it’s not with the intention of changing the topic or interrupting. You can just acknowledge them or ignore them and keep on going.”

“You’re the one who stopped me,” he growled, missing the point.

Your anger is clouding your judgment, young Jedi, I wanted to say, but I knew it would just make things worse. Perhaps you should try to find a way to gain something from arguing,” I suggested instead.

“I’d rather just ignore it.”

This might be one case where I’ll never be able to change his mind, I thought to myself.  And the world will be a little more depressing for it.



  • TheOldBear

    Ah… technically. Your favored usage does not relate to “technique” but to “technicality” — as in a legal technicality, something meaningful or relevant only to a specialist, one concerned with minutia, with the picayune.

    “A distinction without a difference” is a phrase describing the use of terminology which, while correct and accurate, does not change the overall meaning or understanding of the case in point.

    Your use of “technically” argues that at some sub-atomic level, you believe that there is a difference which, at least to you, indeed makes for a distinction.

    But possibly I put too fine a point on it.

  • sarah

    Most of the time I don't like to argue. It seems though, that whenever I DO feel like arguing no one else seems to want to argue back with me. Go figure.

    Also, hate to say it, but I'm with ironman on how I prefer to use the word myriad.

  • AceHarmon

    Both ways are correct. Before I found that out, I never would've used myriad as a noun, but now I sometimes do. The only reason why I use it as an adjective more often is because it saves me two articles (a and of) and stops me from having to double check my subject-verb agreement.

  • AceHarmon

    I remember reading that editorial in the paper when I was home last and thoroughly enjoying it.

    You're probably correct about technicality being the origin of technically in that sense, but I couldn't find any sources that cited it in my brief and webby research. I often wish the world were more black and white, but just by examining the nature of light, it becomes readily apparent that two seemingly opposite states can coexist. It makes it very difficult to divine reality without serious and lengthy investigation and discussion.

  • Hulse

    Well, I'm certainly not the expert: but I would use technically the *opposite* of how you presented it in your post.

    “While you *actually* can acquire photoshop by illegal download, *technically* you did not acquire the piece of software.”

    Perhaps you disagree, but maybe my semantics are wrong! Other examples I find myself [wrongfully?] using day to day:

    “I actually saw the film last weekend, but they didn't collect my ticket so technically I didn't.”

    “You [actually/physically] scored a goal, but [technically] it didn't count.”

    Your point about new lexicon migrating our usage of the word from “skilled tradesman's insight” to “legal fine-print” is a good one though. Nice post! I know that you like arguing for the good facets; it can also strengthen relationships in a unique way! Too much can be a strain though, and certainly you must admit some people don't like to argue. Everything in moderation, including moderation!

  • AceHarmon

    I don't think you're using it the opposite of how I would. It's easy to argue that one side is the true side while the other side is the false reality without prejudice. Choosing which side you believe is correct is a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, it makes the usage of technically much less clear.

    Your ticket example is perfect because not having your ticket taken is the official record of whether or not you saw the film. You know you saw it, but you believe the official record makes your experience moot.

    The soccer example isn't quite how I'd use it. I would more likely say, “I technically scored a goal last week since they counted it as mine, but it went off a defensive player, so actually they scored it.”

    I've been trying harder to walk away from arguments this week, but it really hurts to believe that I know someone is incorrect and that I have the right answer, and yet I'm letting them remain incorrect for the good of our mental sanity.

  • Jen

    Haha, looking back at our arguments and friendship, this post made me laugh. Great commentary.

  • Jen

    Haha, looking back at our arguments and friendship, this post made me laugh. Great commentary.