Thursday, September 29, 2011

For Whom Laird's Bell Tolls

Wringing meaning from my blog postings is not necessary a pealing to all.

Stephan Wik, a friend in Ireland, sent me this message yesterday:
I always make time to read your blog as I find your insights useful and, for the most part, concise. Thanks for the hard work you put into them.

I'm writing to make a small suggestion. I'm not sure how much exposure you've had to non-US audiences, and I haven't seen anything in your writings that indicate you are interested in communicating with the rest of the world outside the US. If you are however, you may wish to consider replacing some of your idioms with more generally understandable expressions. Even I, a native English speaker with an American mother, find that at times I struggle to understand what you are trying to convey.

Here are some examples from your latest blog:

"Hot dog" (does this mean you are excited?)

"all sulfur and no molasses" (no idea what this means)

"This is a combo characteristic" (a combination characteristic? What does that mean?)

"I reckon" (I believe this is used in the Deep South of the US to mean 'I understand'?)

In a spirit of international understanding,

While I'm all in favor of international understanding—and am happy to hear from readers about their reactions to my postings—this is not a simple request. Stephan is quite right to point out that my writing is full of idioms (as well as replete with metaphors and ripe with analogies). Thus, there are times (a handful of which Stephan has enumerated above) when my attempt to be breezy and eclectic comes across as an odd wind, blowing the meaning out of reach. Oops. In an effort to stretch the language (intentional) I accidentally poke a hole in the envelope, and the meaning leaks out.

"All sulfur and no molasses" is an excellent example of this. It's an old expression dating back to the early days of medicine when lay doctors would offer doses of sulfur as a general curative (think of it as a crude forerunner of sulfa drugs). However, because it tasted so awful (think rotten eggs) it was common to offer the patient two tablespoons of molasses (a ubiquitous backwoods sweetener) for every one of sulfur. It was thus an old-fashioned "good and bad" kind of thing that I resuscitated in reference to cooperative groups that offer leaders criticism (sulfur) out of proportion to compliments (molasses).

Rather than eschewing obscure, but apt phrases, I like bringing them down from the attic, dusting them off, and giving them some sunshine.

The fact is, I enjoy playing with the words as much as I enjoy working with the words. While I'm not intending obfuscation, I do intend to entertain as well as elucidate; I strive to enrich and at the same time elongate.

In short, I don't lay up—I always go for the green (golf metaphor). As a process consultant, there is no meeting so complex or volatile that I don't think I can handle the dynamics; there is no knot I don't think I can untie. Even though I sometimes fail to make the jump and land in the mud (even spectacularly), I just get back in the saddle, besmirched clothes and all, and try to make the jump the next time it's in my path.

My friend (and main tech support), Tony Sirna, has advised me that my blog entries would be much more accessible (not to mention better read) if I placed key words in the titles, or even just used titles that stated directly what the topic would be. But how boring is that?

My understanding is that contemporary newspapers are written to be understood with an eighth grade vocabulary. I'm aiming higher—at least for college freshman level. While this sometimes means I'll miss my mark—and Stephan is quite right to point this out—reaching for a simile that puts a smile on reader's lips is an irresistible temptation.

Ask not whom Laird has told; for if you read my blog, then I have toiled for thee.

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