CHILS

Epidemic!

(Note: IANAD) Now that Road Rage has been granted its own disease classification (although “Road Rage Syndrom” may well be a specific instance of IED[0]), I’m going to propose a classification of my own, rough-hewn from one of my more persistent pet peeves. Confused Homophone in Idiomatic Language Syndrome (CHILS) is my provisional name for the prevalent disease in which the afflicted substitutes an incorrect word into textual communication, muddling the meaning of the altered phrase.[1] When spoken, such errors would be undetectable.

  For the purpose of diagnosing CHILS, we keep a rather loose definition of the term “idiom” which includes phrases in common use for which the origins and meanings are still widely known, instead of only those phrases which have lost their original meanings to the general English-speaking community (i.e. “keep tabs on”). The reason for this inclusion is that the appearance of CHILS calls into question whether the meaning of a phrase is actually still generally known. (By way of example, let us consider the phrase “the right to bear arms”, which may be rendered “the right to bare arms” by a CHILS sufferer. An English speaker can still learn the meaning of this phrase by direct reading, and the CHILS sufferer probablyly knows the meaning of the phrase as a phrase. However, he usage of the word “bare” instead of “bear” indicates that he is either ignorant of the meaning of that word, or has some other issue.[2]) Some other examples:

  • odd manor – a house whose residents exhibit strange behaviors, perhaps
  • baited breath – an ancient sashimi preparation in which live fish simply jump into open mouths, and the slicing is done with one’s teeth
  • standard fair – the same old midway, year after year
  • inciteful – (one of my favorites, as it’s not even a proper word) your comments have enlightened me… and provoked me to violence!
  • peak my interest – no, please don’t go on with this topic, it’s all downhill from here
  • weather or not – we shall persist, even if the atmosphere suddenly boils away into the void of space
  • and many phrases use my old friend its, who has been nearly put out of a job by his[3] cousin it’s

To me, this is an interesting phenomenon syndrome, because it is displayed where people are communicating casually through the “new” textual media[4]. I noticed it at first while conversing via ICQ in the mid-90’s, but as most of that communication was with engineering students, I was persuaded by the same that spelling was of no concern to the vast majority of those in the scientific classes of our society. However, with others now joining conversations in blog comments across the internet, it is clear to me that CHILS is not limited to those who prefer the elegant application of numbers to the vulgar weaving of words.

I am sure that I show symptoms of CHILS from time to time[5], but due to a number of factors informing my life’s experiences, I spent a great deal of my childhood and young adulthood with my nose crammed into the spines of hundreds and hundreds of defenseless books. As such, my vocabulary and idiomatic understanding are heavily based in text, and not in verbal tradition. Interestingly, this results in another condition (which may not currently be common enough to support disease classification, as I only know of myself and my wife to be afflicted) in which one can understand and communicate words textually yet have no idea how to actually pronounce many of them. This is a cause of great embarrassment to me, which is probably compounded by the fact that it elicits[6] both confused and derisive reactions from the purported communicant. I wonder if similar embarrassment is felt by those who suffer from CHILS? (I am hesitant to attempt an observation at this point, lest it be viewed as a screed against the evils of technology in society, which would be an activity anathema to my entire career, interest and even personality. But, at that risk…) My first guess is that this is the result of a shift in the way that our culture is communicating[7]. For the span of my childhood and decades before it, television and radio were primary conduits of information and learning, both intentionally (through documentaries, cultural and educational programming) and unintentionally (everything else[8]). Now we are advancing into a textual medium, and although we know the meanings of the phrases we have been uttering, we no longer know how they are constructed. We have divorced the meanings of phrases from the meanings of words. Either that, or folks just don’t know how to spell[9]. [0] On the other hand, who cares? This is The Internet. Where we’re going, we won’t NEED facts.
[1] Ensuing hilarity is optional.
[2] I will concede that it is also possible that he thinks this is a reference to the uncovering of concealed weaponry, or the act of rolling up sleeves in order to more effectively use a weapon. The possibilities are endless.
[3] Or “its”, I guess
[4] ZOMG… INTERNETS!
[5] Just as I occasionally show symptoms of Road Ra.. HEY PAL, YOU WANT TO WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING? I’M TRYING TO TYPE A BLOG POST HERE! YEAH? WHY WOULD THEY SELL ME THIS MOBILE BROADBAND CARD IF I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE LIVE BLOGGING MY COMMUTE, HUH? OH, AND YOU DON’T TYPE AND DRIVE, I’M SURE! Sorry, where was I?
[6] Not “illicits”
[7] Yeah, it’s revolutionary, I know. Also, more of us are now eating with chopsticks. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR AMERICA?
[8] Especially MacGuyver.
[9] Next week: WHY ON FREAKING EARTH DID YOU PUT THAT IN QUOTES

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