I write a lot, so naturally I'm interested in "writerly problems"—issues that come up that pertain to written communication. And one cropped up just the other day that I thought was interesting. Semioticians probably know all about this, and there's probably a formal term for it, but I don't know about any of that.
Here's the problem, in a nutshell:
First man: Your mother wears army boots.
Second man: Hey, screw you! Say that again and I'll punch you!
First man: No, no, I mean she literally likes to wear combat boots from the Army Surplus Store—here she is now, and look what she's wearing.
Second man: Oh. You're right. Yup, she's wearing army boots.
The expression "your mother wears army boots" dates, as far as I can tell, from the First World War. Impoverished or displaced civilians would strip clothing—including, yes, military-issue boots—from corpses on the battlefield, and it was commonplace for "camp followers"—prostitutes serving the soldiers at encampments—to wear such clothing. So "your mother wears army boots" was an insult; it was the same thing, essentially, as saying, "Thou son of a cheap whore."
So then what do you do if someone's mother is actually wearing combat boots? How do you say that, stripped of the usual connotations? The question could also be asked as, what do you do when something that appears to be allegorical, or a metaphor, or an implication, is in fact simply literally true?
I offended a number of readers yesterday when I wrote the following: "...Several of the few [prints of "Color Picture"] that have sold have gone to some of TOP's most illustrious readers—people 'in the know' in one way or another—well-known photographers, people in the photo museum community, collectors."
A few people assumed from this that I was making an implication about those who didn't buy the print. One reader wrote, "The people 'in the know'...those with with 'discrimination and good judgment and taste' are buying it. So you say. The riff raff don't. I also know why I did not order your picture. You know, it's a riff raff thing." His assumption was that I was talking about him, and that my statement was a backhanded way of implying that because he didn't buy the print he wasn't "in the know," that he was somehow inferior. That my intent was to imply that he was "riff raff."
Actually, I wasn't saying that at all. I was just making a statement of fact: in fact, half the people who bought the print in the first 24 hours were literally "well-known photographers, people in the photo museum community, collectors."
Here's part of a note I got from one buyer:
I have a pretty good collection of prints which yours will be joining, and it will hold up with the others. (I have "Moonrise," "Running White Deer," Harry Callahan's "Chicago Fall," Cartier-Bresson's shot of the girl running up the stairs between the white buildings, an Alvarez-Bravo nude, Bernice Abbott's "Exchange Street," Andre Kertesz's "Chez Modrian" and "Satyric Dancer," a very nice Mapplethorpe flower, etc.) And I wouldn't have ordered yours if I didn't think it would hold up.
So you see, I really wasn't saying anything by implication. I wasn't trying to imply anything bad about anybody who wasn't buying the print. It wasn't a dig: it was just true.
I didn't publish the "riff raff" comment—well, until now—because I like to think I'm a fair and respectful person. I don't look down on anybody who reads this site. I do know more about certain aspects of photography than many of my readers do, but then, the expertise of most of my readers in their own fields or within their own subjects of enthusiasm far exceeds mine, and I don't think I ever forget that. I don't ever feel "superior," and I don't believe I act like I do.
Here are just a few examples of our far-flung audience who I know about or have heard from: a fisherman in the Bering Sea; a petroleum geologist in western Australia (although I think he's stationed in Sydney now); a partner in a huge law firm in D.C.; several novelists; a former Senate Majority Leader; Bill Rogers; a Battalion Commander in Iraq; a violin maker; an expert on gardening from Canada; an airline pilot; a mother of three in Georgia; an animator at Pixar. And on and on. I should feel superior to any of those people? Not on your life.
Heck, I don't even know as much about photography as a lot of our readers do. I have a lot of respect for people who are able to run their own wedding photography businesses; I've photographed exactly two weddings in my life, enough to know I would fail at that. There are photojurnalists and sports photographers who deal with problems every day that I couldn't handle. People who avidly follow Strobist and do all the lighting exercises David assigns know more about lighting than I do. Again, no superiority complex here.
Just the facts, ma'am
So I was not saying to the riff-raff guy, "your mother wears army boots." I was just saying that in this particular specific case, his maternal progenitor happened to be wearing army footwear. Get the distinction?
(Hmm...that last paragraph is really not going to help, is it...?)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "Are you implying I'm too freakin' dumb to understand what you originally meant?!"
Featured Comment by Russell Guzewicz: "Mike I'd like to buy your print but I really need new boots."
Featured Comment by Marcus Smith: "As a linguist, let me assure you that sentences can almost always be read to imply something that you didn't intend. It is a basic fact about language...all languages, not just English. You can't escape it. I'd say you should just go about saying what you want to say, knowing that occasionally someone will misunderstand you. That isn't your fault, and there's nothing you can do about it, but clarify after the fact. Trying to be clear before the fact will just deaden your prose."