When is a tail a leg?

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Monday, November 5th, 2012
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Harold A Maio, 75, is retired from teaching German and mental health editing, though he keeps a hand in both. Through art and German he has a lasting interest in expression, particularly in language. To him word is art, he likes to discern the meaning in word.

Harold speaks to Newry Times about the meaning of words.

Harold A Maio

When an idea comes to me, I will write it. “When is a tail a leg?” and other metaphors relate to the divisions in Northern Ireland. I am not sure how to directly address them. Or what effect so doing might have.

I do see it as language, the creation of an us and a them. The inability of a some to see an us. It reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s satire of two kingdoms fighting over which end of the boiled egg to crack. It has been a long time since I read that, I do not recall if they warred.

When is a tail a leg?

Abraham Lincoln is said to have had a favorite joke, “How many legs has a sheep, if  you call the tail a leg?” How you respond depends entirely on how you view language.

It is five if you believe you can decide the meaning of a word, if you can make it suit you, reality need not interfere. It is four otherwise. (Try serving tail as leg of lamb, taste the reality.)

Sometimes word is disguise for realities we somehow do not wish to recognize. Or dare not. A country may call itself democratic, and be entirely the opposite. In 11th grade, a great many years ago, 1954, I took part in a contest, “I Speak for Democracy.”

A short 3 years later my views of democracy in the United States changed entirely. What I had experienced as democracy, as an empowered white male, did not mirror what a great many other people in my country experienced.

And as much as I believed what had been taught to me, I discovered it was a highly edited version of history, made White for White eyes. I am not sure it was entirely deliberate, the teachers who taught me had learned that same history, and conveniently or not, left out realities they as history teachers had to have to have known.

History has a way of hiding, what is hidden depends on where and when. When I saw what had been hidden, I could not help but ask, “Why?”

I remember well in that same year being taught that the term “men” included “women.” Mrs. Boorom, my 11th grade English teacher, taught us that. Not many years later an empowered women’s movement assured me women were not included in that term.

How had she not known, how had I not known? History had clearly taught me that women’s rights were far less than men’s. We knew that women had not been allowed to vote, hold office, not allowed to do many of the things men did, because, we were trained, they were not as capable as men.

We watched on TV as men came home to aproned, kitchened  women, ready to serve them. The images were there, and not many of us deduced how limited those images were. There are many words that do not mean what they say, and are repeated as if they did.

There are many people who internalize those words and those meanings. and many who act -or do not act, because of them. The term “asylum” deteriorated from a place of safety to a place of horror, a “Bedlam”, it became its own antonym, and still we repeated it as if it were reality.

It continues to be repeated. Naively? It is difficult for me to imagine that naiveté, but then, I saw women as naively.

“Asylum” was followed by “hospital,” though we knew full well mental “hospitals” were not. As a child I remember recognizing the mental institution not all that far from my home for what it was. “Behave or they will ‘take you there!” I could not have learned that on my own, the reality had to have come to me from the adults around me.

We knew, they knew, and still we tolerated both the word, and worse, the conditions there. That has not greatly changed. We still prefer to call them “hospitals,”our attitude interfering wholly with their reform.

To complete the lie, people held in mental institutions were called “patients’, and, in stiffly starched, white uniforms, “nurses” attended them. And “doctors” directed them. The illusion was as complete as it could be. Not only did we on the outside accept it, but people on the inside, entering that world every day, held to the pretense.

Each day they left a Technicolor world to enter a Grey one, and did not seem to be bothered by it. As we know from the abuses, many savored it. Too many. Other words appear today, equally disguising realities we do not want to face.

They appear all around us, and are difficult to resist so repetitive are they. Told often enough, any lie can be convincing. Told by enough people, any lie can be convincing. Repeated by enough people, any lie can be convincing. Told by government, a lie can be convincing. Brought to print often enough, as fact, any lie can be convincing.

The responsibility for word, changing word, often falls upon the people, that concept in “by the people, for the people, and of the people.” Sometimes the people arise and make their voice known, sometimes through violence, and sometimes through quiet revolution.

And sometimes through great statesmen, great women.

Slavery in the US fell to a voice, that of Abraham Lincoln. It fell after terrible violence. Segregation fell to many voices, most unknown, in a revolution directed by non-violence. It fell through the leadership of one man, Martin Luther King, as before him another had fallen to Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi had been educated to the institutionalized prejudices in South Africa, and returned to India, to address those prejudices there. What some saw as real and true, another saw as false and inhuman.

It was the same sheep, but not the same view. The prejudices of South Africa fell much later. The world does not teach lessons we refuse to learn, we have to teach ourselves.

So, what of “a sheep” today? Do we collectively call a tail a leg, or do we at least attempt to see, with a degree of integrity, what stands before us? Examine word to see if it reflects reality or distorts it, skews it.

One word at a time, isolated from phrase, sentence. I do so and am at a times successful in the “seeing” and sometimes not. Some word images elude me, as they will you, but in the attempt is a form of success.


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