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Talking in Circles

 

As a child, I was taught in my Jewish school that we are not allowed to write the name of God (G-d) full out, or else we are taking God’s name in vain. You can’t even spell the Hebrew version of Yahweh out loud; you have to replace some of the letters with safer letters. Often, orthodox Jews will replace any name of God with “Hashem,” which means “The Name.” It’s similar to the He-who-must-not-be-named business in the Harry Potter books, except that we were avoiding saying the name of the ultimate good rather than the ultimate evil. Part of it is an attempt to retain the power, the specialness, of the name of God. Just like in Harry Potter, the fear is that if you say the name of He-who-must-not-be-named (Voldemort, ahem) too frequently, you’ll forget to be afraid of him.

All of this makes me think about how hard it is for humans to say what we mean. In our intention to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to avoid criticism, we often end up being polite, or vague, and therefore, being misunderstood. I love that dogs are direct. I may not always like what they have to say (or when they choose to say it), but at least I know what’s going on with them. Cricket is very clear when she is angry at me for withholding the extra treats she demands. Butterfly is also very direct, and never uses big words. If she barks, it either means she wants to eat what you are eating (and is convinced that Cricket, because she can jump up onto the couch, will have first dibs), or she needs to go outside. If she flattens herself on the ground, she wants to be picked up. If she smiles, it’s because she is actually happy (most likely because food is anticipated). If she licks your hand, she wants to be scratched. If she’s wary, she backs away. If she’s really scared, she shivers (at the vet’s office or during a storm, usually). She’s not vague, or blurry, or sly. And because she’s so clear, her needs are easy to meet.

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Butterfly wants scratchies!

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Cricket is grumpy.

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Those are my shoes Butterfly is sitting on. I can’t imagine what she’s trying to say.

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“Feed me!”

A lot of the time, though, people are vague because they really don’t know what they are feeling, or how to express it clearly. I find myself asking question after question of people who think they’ve been clear and clearly were not. I’m often in the position of wanting to scream, “What the @#$% are you trying to say?!” But I rein myself in. Mostly. I will try to ask a question or two, or ten, to help them get to their point. Sometimes they do not realize that they are wandering, or being unclear. Sometimes they are as frustrated as I am, and believe that I should just understand them without their help. Sometimes they know exactly what they mean, but English is their second language, behind the jargon of their profession, and we both remain un-elucidated.

My rabbi, at times, throws in a word that he assumes everyone knows, like Hapax legamenon – which means, a word that appears only once in a text, like the Bible. He momentarily forgets that we were not all in rabbinical school with him, where that word came up all the time and was so useful! I have an automatic allergy to words like that, because I hated sitting at the dinner table as a kid and being the only one who didn’t understand what was being said, especially after my brother started to study vocabulary words for the SATs. But my rabbi thinks each one of these words is like a jewel, a gift! And he tosses them into conversation with glee. I am considering preparing a glossary for new members of the synagogue with words he uses often, like: prolegomenon, apotropaic, apocopation, merism, inclusio, and, of course, hapax legamenon. He is, in most ways, exceedingly down to earth, but those particular words of his profession just make him delusionally happy.

But, some people use jargon intentionally to keep others out of the club. In certain professions (academics, medicine, and law come to mind), you spend a great deal of your time learning the language of the profession before you can ever be trusted to think your own thoughts. This bothers me. I mean, sure, it’s good to be precise, and when you go into more depth on a particular subject it helps to have vocabulary with you to light up the dark, but does it have to be so alienating to outsiders? To what end?

Cricket understands every word I say, or do not say. She has especially become a master of the ellipsis, so that I can’t even leave the important words unsaid, because she knows I was going to say them anyway. I wonder what she would do with the rabbi’s rabbinical school jargon. She probably wouldn’t let him off the hook, the way the humans do. She would have at least a few more questions for him. He says that dogs can’t come to Bible Study because some congregants may have allergies, or deep-seated fears of canines, but I wonder. Maybe he’s just afraid that Cricket will stand on the table, barking insistently, “but why?!” And he won’t have a handy dandy hapax legamenon with which to answer her.

 

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“But why?”

 

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

81 responses »

  1. Yes thankfully dogs are very down to earth and say what they mean and mean what they say. I’m impressed you can even spell your Rabbi’s words!

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  2. Dogs are so much easier than humans by far. What is the saying, “say what you mean and mean what you say” dogs always get that one right, we people, not so much, lol.

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  3. Perspicacious weaving of dog and human communication, Rachel. You had me laughing out loud — well done!

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  4. sallyinthehaven

    Love this Rachel – beautifully written and all so very true. I love learning new words although I imagine that ‘hapax legamenon’ is not among those I see myself using much in the future . . . 🙂

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  5. Dogs are also usually much easier to please as well. Imagine if you could make a colleague happy by rubbing his or her belly. Well, maybe I could try that. Often times, people can be vague or beat around the bush because they’re afraid of offending or hurting another person. As much as we say we want the truth a lot of people “can’t handle the truth!”

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  6. You’re lucky. My dog is purposely obtuse.

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  7. I work in a cancer support center and have to deal with medical and social work jargon! Ugh. In grad school (Catholic university, religious studies), we had profs who loved saying eschatological and hermeneutics and then I worked with a nun who loved to say reparation. I, too, like my dog’s way of straight-forward communication, and I am in favor of using everyday English at all times (just say “no” to jargon).

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  8. I work with someone who always has to use words that I have no idea what they mean. I smile and nod and then head for the dictionary. I am reminded of a saying: “Why use a small word when a diminutive will do, instead?”

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  9. Has Butterfly hatched those shoes yet?

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  10. HaHa. They’re everywhere! Windbags need to be deflated from time to time. Nice piece of writing.

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  11. I think you might be right…I bet your Rabbi is afraid the dogs would expect explanation!
    We have several dogs…it is amazing to me how each has their own way to communicate.

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  12. I am tempted to say, “sometimes a dog is just a dog.” Great piece!

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  13. Mark Twain said “Never use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” I try to keep that advice in mind. Love the doggy. They don’t even need fifty-cent words to communicate.

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  14. So funny to imagine Cricket to want answers to “but why”.

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  15. Our Chick has mastered the art of communication, just like Butterfly and Cricket. 🙂

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  16. You are so right Rachel. Dogs not only understand what we say, but associate actions with routines, walk, bedtime etc.
    Sometimes I get tired of being polite, or PC, or trying to spare someone’s feelings by a mischosen word or action. At the moment, I am feeling that sometimes it is perhaps better to say nothing at all.
    In my writings, I am forever tweaking, cutting and pasting so as not to repeat myself or get things out of context. It can be a difficult balancing act.

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  17. Well said! Learning to communicate is a life-long endeavor and our pets are good teachers.

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  18. Hey Rachel! So, I was just strolling around the wide blogosphere of writers, and wanted to know if you were interested in participating in a blogging/writing collaboration-journey-adventure in the somewhat near future with me and a few other bloggers. I can’t say too much about it right now – the details are TOP SECRET – but it will basically be a short-term, not-too-labor-intensive, super-mega-fun creative project that will have everyone else be like “damn, why didn’t I sign up to be a part of this project when they asked me to?” If you’re interested, reply here and/or drop me a line at jacobh1021 at yahoo dot com. Cheers!

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  19. A lot of poetry is like that for me…I think I’m suppose to get it, but it’s way too obtuse for me! 🙂

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  20. I was under the impression that not writing the full name of God was standard practice for Jewish people and when I first started responding to your posts, in deference to you I wrote G-d. Then. of course, when you didn’t do that, I stopped doing it. Was interested in your comments regarding your Rabbi and his use of Rabinical words. Some Ministers have a tendency to do a similar trick – like throwing Latin words or phrases into the Sermon, and just to confuse, Greek words and phrases, on the assumption that members of congregations are well versed in Greek and Latin and know exactly what he’s talking about.

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  21. Love the theological opening paragraph – quite profound – but the whole posting is so enchanting to read. I’m just getting used to the language of our dog, although we have some way to go; now in my seventies the last time I had a dog of my own was as a nineteen year old.

    Thanks for visiting my blog!

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  22. Wow is this post ever taking off! Almost 160 likes and over 50 comments. Great job on your blog!

    I think it shows just how much us dog lovers like a good post 🙂

    Very cute by the way!

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  23. Wait until you can’t HEAR the rabbi’s big words, Rachel…:)

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  24. I so agree but might I add – don’t forget cats. My daughter’s Baloo goes actually into a corner looking at it when it knows parents aren’t happy with him. And yes to the big words but it also made me remember the time when knew no english and had absolutely no idea what everyone around me talked about. So even the 50 cents words weren’t helping in that instance but the language barrier has the same effect as the 5 dollar word. Great post 🙂

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  25. I adore all the photos and the captains make them even better!

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  26. Years ago, when I worked with the deaf, my sign language name was the sign for “big words.” It’s an occupational hazard of attorneys, just like rabbis, I fear.

    I believe that most people don’t clearly say what they mean because: 1. People, unlike dogs, aren’t going to have their needs satisfied regardless of how clear they are — and may, in fact, have a better chance if they are less clear. 2. Clearly stating what you mean will make a lot of people hate your guts and bring down public opprobrium upon your head. You end up being branded a boor and, well, certain other less polite words. You just can’t get away with saying just what you mean these days. Unless, of course, you’re Donald Trump.

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  27. Sorry to be a nerd, but it’s actually hapax legomenon. Being currently immersed in the thickets of learning Ancient Greek I’m very sure about that!

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  28. I believe dogs are the most empathetic creatures on earth. If you are sick they show concern. Also they communicate telepathically. Clare sits by my chair and stares at me and sends mental messages when she wants something.

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  29. PS I would love listening to your Rabbi. I think I know what merism is.

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  30. I find avoiding a word by inserting something else with exactly the same meaning pointless, whether it’s religion, biology or obscenity involved.

    On the other hand, I find really irritating the fashion for people who’ve probably never thought about God in their lives to say “Ohmigod!” I don’t mind, “Oh, my God, the building’s on fire.” I do mind, “Ohmigod, she’s wearing WHITE SHOES!”.

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  31. As an academic, we do spend a great deal of time learning scientific background in order to fully understand “what we know” up to this point. This is so we can ask the right questions, and not waste time on what has already been done. If it is alienating to outsiders, it is unintentional, because academics get so caught up in the pursuit and mystery of answering questions, that they forget not everyone has made the same journey, or might want to. It’s hard to explain! I still have debates with other scientists about the importance of science communication by ALL scientists, vs. just a few rock stars, a la David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Bill Nye, etc. So reform is in progress ^_^

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  32. You, like your dogs, are also straightforward in expressing yourself. I enjoyed this very much!

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  33. I really, really …,’@$#****….this post! tee hee hee hee…..You do understand, don’t you? Woof!

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  34. Why cant I post an emoticon! Do I have to say they word? LOVE!

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  35. I love your posts, and especially your photos! And thanks, also, for all the “Likes” you give to my posts. In fact, you “liked” my most recent post so quickly but I was still editing it!! Please keep your posts coming. I really look forward to them.

    Reply
  36. Pingback: Talking in Circles | Kimberly Townsend Palmer

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