What Is Wrong With You?

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There’s a great Terry Pratchett quote that goes something like this:

A European says, “I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with me?”

An American says, “I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with you?”

There’s no doubt that social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is a decidedly American construct.

I ran headlong into this today while writing the latest long-form Epsilon Theory note, the sequel to Things Fall Apart (Part 1), where I was describing the political dynamics that hollow out the center of partisan politics and push more and more of us to extremist positions. I wrote about the centripetal force created by our widening gyre of politics, because that’s what a spinning thing creates – centripetal force.

In reviewing the piece, Grand Maester Guinn asked if I wanted to use the term centrifugal force here, at which point I bristled.

“Awkshually, Grand Maester, there is no such thing as centrifugal force. It’s an imaginary force for which people have invented an imaginary term to describe their feelings in a car going around a curve or on a merry-go-round. A centrifuge creates centripetal force. Period. And you want me to use this nonsense term? Bah!”

I may or may not have drawn out the word “feelings” into three or four syllables.

Now of course Grand Maester Guinn was fully aware of the distinction. His uncle and his father were engineers, and I would imagine that lessons in angular momentum and Newton’s Second Law of Motion were the equivalent of nursery rhymes for Baby Rusty. And on reflection, I think he’s absolutely right. If I use centripetal force here, even if I’m using it perfectly correctly, that phrase will stop 99% of readers dead in their tracks. The “what is wrong with me?” Europeans will stop reading and go look it up on Wikipedia. The (far more prevalent) “what is wrong with you?” Americans will stop reading and get mad at me. Either way, they stop reading. But then again, if I use the more colloquial centrifugal force, readers who DO know what centripetal force means will be disappointed in me. And I think that hurts the most.

Sigh.

There are a lot of words and terms that have been hijacked these days, that are impossible to use without stopping readers dead in their tracks. Liberal has been hopeless for twenty years. Libertarian is totally a lost cause. But I feel like more and more words – non-political and non-affect-laden words  – are passing over the event horizon of usefulness.

Now Grand Maester Guinn wants me to keep centripetal force because he thinks it will be “delightfully debate-inducing”. I dunno. There’s bigger game afoot, so I’ll probably just rewrite the sentence. But maybe I’ll take a stand after all.


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