Thursday, 10 February 2011

February and Other Mysteries

Yesterday I heard a DJ complaining about February, with it’s “silent r” and its fewer days. “What’s that all about, Febyoory?” he wittered.

fɛbrʊəri, or fɛbjʊəri gets its name from the Latin ‘februarius’, which in turn comes from februa, the name of a Roman purification feast held in this month. Precise speakers insist that the r should be pronounced, but it doesn’t flow easily for everyone so most people replace it with a y sound: Feb-yoo- rather than Feb-roo-. This is now becoming the accepted standard. Three seconds on would have told him that, as it did me, and no doubt explanations for the fewer days could be found with a little more digging.

I have to conclude that his question was entirely rhetorical. He had no desire to find out the answers, only to find a subject which his listeners could relate to. And I suppose it’s likely that many English speakers will at some point have wondered about the seemingly redundant and obstructive first r in the word, so the DJ was sure to have connected with a lot of people on some level.

But what kind of people? With exabytes of digital information within easy and almost instant reach, in an age of smart phones, i-pads, laptops, Google, Android and Wikipedia, who is still left in the dark about such trivial things? Presumably a fairly big proportion of radio listeners tuning in to DJs that fill their air-time with inane rhetoric. They must feel the inclination to listen to these topics and even, in the case of some shows, to phone in and discuss them live on air.

So what purpose does it serve to question without seeking answers? I think the answer to that is it provides people with commonality, bonds of shared incredulity and tutting at the state of things. It allows the head-shaking grumblers countless opportunities to vent the Victor Meldrewisms that tend to bubble up in us when we feel out of our depth, like a kind of irritation version of nitrogen narcosis. I also think this, along with titillation and confirmation bias, is among the last few remaining purpose of most newspapers.

So what’s the problem? For me the problem is it’s lazy. It reinforces our existing fears and prejudices. It’s the reverse of scientific thinking because it doesn’t seek answers, it seeks only consensus of opinion. It’s a form of confirmation bias itself, on a grand scale. A mutual agreement to banish thought and reason and to lock thought patterns into disapproval. Entrenched dissatisfaction with trivial and often transient matters, such as pronunciation or fashions, provides the opportunity to conserve energy by resetting the default attitude towards any process requiring effort to condemnation. It removes the need to re-assess our model of the world to fit the new or the or to acclimatise ourselves to the unexpected.

Remember the flightless birds of New Zealand. Evolution follows the rule of ‘use it or lose it’ and it favours anything that conserves energy. If we as a species make a virtue of ignorance we make it an attractive quality, which in turn risks it becoming an adaptive trait. Our huge and costly brains came about through necessity during periods of ever-more complex problem solving, both technical and social. Now everything is done at the push of a button and we have less need to think for ourselves. Our intellectual wings have been superseded by a cultural miasma which buoys us up and along whatever path we slouch our way into early in life. As we’re less and less inclined to think for ourselves or to challenge our long-held and safe beliefs we’re more and more likely to lose our ability to discern between truth and comfort.

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