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Troubling phrases 2

Posted by James Cowan on 30 July 2017 in Troubling phrases

I saw the other day a magazine entitled "UFOlogy" on the same shelf as New Scientist in the local corner store. As if there really was a science devoted to "UFOs". A UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. So the science is devoted to the unknown. Sounds terribly metaphysical. But why should any flying object be "unknown"? Does it mean "Not yet identified", in the way that a mate of mine used to say that a fish in a rock pool that he had no idea about was "new to science"? Or does it mean that the "observer" needed to clean their camera lens? Or even that they are – like me – getting older, and subject to a growing number of "floaters" in the eyeballs? It's puzzling, isn't it, that anything not so far identified or explained in the sky has to be from another world, whereas in any other environment it is either cleared up by checking again or, in fact, becomes known to science. When was the last time you heard of an unidentified floating object remaining unidentified long enough to become the subject of disinformation? But UFO is merely a less-pejorative label attached to "flying saucer", even though they have often not even been saucer shaped. 'Tis a strange world, this of the pseudo-scientific.

With pseudo-science in mind, if ever there was a hackneyed expression, at the moment "steep learning curve" has to be it. Allowing that some people think anything mathematical has an air of truth that something expressed in English does not, and most of all if it is expressed graphically, when you examine it the phrase is almost always meaningless. It is intended to demonstrate that there is a lot to learn in a new role or of a new topic. But that's all – when confronted by a knowledge gap, it is up to the newbie to learn what is new; the "steepness" of that process is entirely in their hands. To work the analogy to death, a quick learner has a "steeper" learning curve than someone who learns more slowly. It is a personal attribute, not a property of the information, but of the learner. And the omission of "steep" does not improve the situation; I recently read of someone saying that living off the grid was "a learning curve". If you need to draw pictures, I suppose it was; would it not be better expressed as "a lot to learn"? Probably in every occurrence of either phrase?

If I am travelling and have a schedule – trains or planes to catch – I ask the hotel for a "wake-up call". This usually takes the form of a phone call to my room to tell me that the time I asked to be woken has been reached. Realistically, it is a phrase with only one meaning. But when a bomb goes off in a theatre, for example, why does it become a "wake-up call" for the police? Certainly it is an intimation that some precautions have been insufficient, but if any hotel tried giving me a wake-up call at 7 by letting off a bomb – even if it was only a small one – I would be most upset. As well, of course, as awake.

How often do you see the phrase "this point in time"? I am thankful that I have not seen it much, but I do hear it lots on the radio. It is hard to understand why "now" is insufficient for some people, although as it is generally out of the mouths of people under pressure over some kind of inconvenient occurrence; perhaps it is a way to leave the voice in action while the brain goes somewhere else. It doesn't add anything to the sum of human knowledge, though.

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