Category Archives: Phrases

What is Sealioning?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWhen you initially hear the term sealioning, it evokes the image of a group of dedicate volunteers on a boat, somewhere in the ocean not too far off the coast, attempting to rescue sea lions or waving flags at passing ships raising awareness about the plight of sea lions. However the true meaning of sealioning is as noble: it is a form of online harassment or trolling. This is how sealioning works: the troll (the sealion) targets an individual (the target) and pretends to be ignorant about a specific topic or issue. The sealion repeatedly asks the target questions or to provide specific evidence, while remaining polite and pretending to be sincere. The goal is to provoke the target to lose his or her temper and write an angry response. At this point, the troll responds as the insulted or aggrieved party. And just like real sea lions, trolls often work together as a group. (Incidentally a group of sea lions is called a colony when they are on land; in the water, they are called a raft; during breeding season, they are known as rookery; a group of females in a male’s territory is called a harem.)

“So what’s the real harms in asking a lot of detailed questions?” you ask. In an enlightening essay entitled “The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions” included in Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online (2017) published by the Berkman Kelin Center for Internet & Society, a research center at Harvard University, Amy Johnson elaborates: “[A long series of questions] may seem like a well-intentioned search for answers. It’s not—it’s a simplified example of a rhetorical strategy called sealioning. Sealioning is an intentional, combative performance of cluelessness. Rhetorically, sealioning fuses persistent questioning — often about basic information, information easily found elsewhere, or unrelated or tangential points — with a loudly-insisted-upon commitment to reasonable debate. It disguises itself as a sincere attempt to learn and communicate. Sealioning thus works both to exhaust a target’s patience, attention, and communicative effort, and to portray the target as unreasonable. While the questions of the “sea lion” may seem innocent, they’re intended maliciously and have harmful consequences. [The responses from the target range] from lengthy explanations to pointing to logical fallacies in the questions themselves, from calling out the sealioning to ignoring it. It is these responses that the sea lion seeks to shape — and it is here that multiple harms occur.” The multiple harms can be minor, like short-term annoyance, wasted energy, and the opportunity cost of time spent. But there are larger social harms, like when the target is now skeptical of all future questioners and is likely to engage in online discussions. This results in reduction of constructive discourse as well as reducing the opportunities of individuals to learn from one another. Johnson argues that sealioning attacks informal teaching; she writes: “Informal teaching undergirds mediated communication. Informal teaching is an unacknowledged foundation of technoutopian dreams from telegraphy to the present: by learning through iinteractions with each other, we will achieve universal understanding and eliminate conflict And to some extent, this happens. At any one moment, informal teaching — about everything from platform norms and literacies to life experiences — bridges the hugely diverse skill sets and histories of people online.”

So now you understand the harm of sealioning, but we are left with one question: how in the world did this form of trolling end up being called sealioning? The term is based on a specific comic strip titled “The Terrible Sea Lion” (published September 19, 2014) from the web-based comic book Wondermark by David Malki. In the six panels of that comic strip a couple is discussing marine mammals and the wife mentions that she doesn’t care for sea lions. All of a sudden a sea lion appears and requests “a civil conversation about your statement.” And the seal lion is persistent: he shows up repeatedly: at their dinner, at their bedside in the evening, and at breakfast in the morning. The sea lion says, “I have been unfailingly polite, and you two have been nothing rude.” So there you have it: the worst form of sealioning — from an actual sea lion. What is the world coming to?

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Read related posts: What is the Borgesian Conundrum?
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Origins of Talk Turkey

What is the Meaning of Six Ways From Sunday?
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For further reading: cyber.harvard.edu/sites/cyber.harvard.edu/files/2017-08_harmfulspeech.pdf
http://wondermark.com/1k62/


Trump’s Response to Coronavirus Crisis and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThe world was stunned on March 6, 2020 as President Trump toured the Centers for Disease Control  headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia and bragged about his incredible comprehension of science because he had a smart uncle, referring to Donald George Trump (1907-1985), an electrical engineer, physicist, and inventor. Standing next to real doctors and health experts who are earnestly working to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump shamelessly said, “You know my Uncle was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT for, I think, a record number of years. He was a great super genius, Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said: ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.” Remember, this is the same man who stated unequivocally: “I’m an extremely stable genius. OK?”

It is disturbing to witness this egregious example of braggadocio, one of the many indicators of pathological narcissism, from a poorly educated individual who doesn’t read and doesn’t believe in science and medicine, futilely attempts to brag his way out of one of America’s most devastating crises. As many experts have expressed, Trump’s steady stream of lies, misinformation, and provocative statements are simply worsening the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, and more significantly, it is frightening to realize that this is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The term was coined by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychologists at Cornell University, in their 1999 study titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. Moreover, that individual has a false inflated sense of confidence about their supposed competence. And this, of course, is what makes these individual so annoying. Dunning points out the irony of the effect: “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” Consequently, without appropriate management and training, such a person cannot improve because they are essentially clueless about how bad they are at a particular job. In subsequent research, Dunning has found the Dunning-Kruger Effect rampant among employees of high-tech firms and medical companies, professors at universities, and among drivers.

If you have been reading the news in the last few months, you know that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is alive and well in American politics. In an op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Trump has a dangerous Disability,” political commentator George Will wrote the following about President Donald Trump’s many egregious mistakes about American history: “What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something [emphasis added].”

Yale psychologist Gordon Pennycock recently published a paper that explores the connection between the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the concept of reflectivity (a trait that can predict whether a person is likely to be highly deluded about his or her own knowledge). Pennycock found that the Dunning-Kruger Effect impacts a person ability to reason and reflect. Subjects in the study were asked to take a test of reflectivity and then asked to evaluate themselves. Most of the subjects who were unreflective believed that they did very well since they had no idea of what it meant to be reflective and thus were too incompetent to accurately evaluate their own behavior. Now think of Trump and his statements. Alarmingly, Trump lacks any modesty about his self-professed intelligence: in many interviews and appearances he has bragged that he is very well-educated, intelligent, and possesses a very high IQ. Is he highly deluded?

This leads us to our next discussion: what happens when a person who exhibits this cognitive bias is surrounded by enablers. And, in the case of Trump, this situation is amplified because he is the President of the U.S., the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world. One is reminded of the famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that story the emperor, who is very vain and a slave to fashion, is swindled by two crafty tailors who fashion the finest clothes with fabric that can only be seen by smart or competent people. The tailors, of course, made nothing at all and the emperor falls for the con and proudly dons his “new clothes.” The pompous emperor then walks around nude (or perhaps wearing underwear, the story is not clear) in his palace, and all of his servants bow down and praise his very fine new clothes. Eager to show off his new clothes to all his subjects, the emperor organizes a parade to walk through the town. Again, like his servants, the public praises the emperor’s fine (but invisible) clothes — except for one little boy, who sees this ridiculous sight and provides a vital reality check: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” However, it is a variation of that line that endures as an idiom: “The emperor has no clothes!” One can only hope that at some point, the elected representatives in Congress and parts of the American electorate should realize that the President has no clothes.

Interestingly, long before there was any formal, scientific research, many philosophers and writers throughout history intuitively understood man’s inflated sense of intelligence or competence. Here are the different ways they expressed this universal truth:
Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
William Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (from As You Like It)
Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

Read related posts: What is the Barnum Effect?
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For further reading: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Brandy Lee
http://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2017/01/24/the-dunning-kruger-effect-shows-why-some-people-think-theyre-great-even-when-their-work-is-terrible/#24624b915d7c

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-has-a-dangerous-disability/2017/05/03/56ca6118-2f6b-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.883b9bdaf4c0
http://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-05-12/trump-s-dangerous-disability-it-s-the-dunning-kruger-effect
https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-017-1242-7
http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2015/08/31/donald-trump-says-his-late-uncle-mit-professor-was-proof-family-smart-genes/yoGlj3ESPWxBc7E5nSBlPN/story.html
http://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/23/trump-stable-genius-1342655
http://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/20/opinion/letters/trump-narcissist.html


What is the Trolley Problem?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureNo, the trolley problem has nothing to do with bewildered tourists in San Francisco who don’t know which trolley to take: the Powell/Hyde line or the California/Van Ness line? Rather, the trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics or moral psychology. The trolley problem is set up like this: Imagine there is a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks and you are standing some distance off, right next to a lever that controls the direction of the tracks. In the lever’s current position the trolley will travel straight, leading to five people standing on the main track; if you pull the lever, it will divert the trolley to a side track where one person is standing. What is the ethical thing to do? Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people? Or pull the lever, diverting the trolley to a side track where it will kill one person? Not an easy decision to make is it?

In ethics, the trolley problem sets up a clash between two schools of moral thought: deontology and utilitarianism. A deontologist would argue that the morality of an action is based on whether an action itself is right or wrong under a set of rules, rather than the consequences of the action. In short, the action is more critical than the consequences. The utilitarian would argue the opposite: that an action is right as long as it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If you are a fan of the original sci-fi series, Star Trek, from the late 1960s, you will recognize the theme of utilitarianism that is woven into many episodes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  We can paraphrase the Star Trek aphorism to align more closely to true utilitarianism: “The happiness of the many outweigh the happiness of the few.” And in contrast with the deontologist, the consequences are more critical than the act.

On another level, the trolley problem represents a Cornelian dilemma: a dilemma where a person must choose between two courses of action that either of which will have a harmful effect on themselves or others. The phrase is named after Pierre Corneille, a French dramatist. In his play, Le Cid (1636), Rodrigue, the protagonist, must choose between seeking revenge and losing his beloved or forego revenge and losing his honor.

So what are you — a deontologist or a utilitarian? What would you do in this difficult situation? Philosophers and psychologist are fascinated with this moral dilemma, and many studies and surveys have been done to study how people respond to the trolley problem. In many surveys, 90% of the respondents choose to pull the lever and sacrifice one live to save the five people. A survey of professional philosophers conducted in 2009 revealed that 70% of them would pull the lever, 8% would not, and 22% could not answer or offered another view.

Why is the trolley problem relevant now? As the COVID-10 pandemic overwhelms medical facilities and supplies, doctors find themselves at the very levers of disease’s tracks. Doctors have reported that they face agonizing decisions about which patients to treat and save, and those not to treat which will result in death. In most, if not all cases, doctors are making utilitarian decisions: the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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What is the Borgesian Conundrum?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureA Borgesian Conundrum, as you may have surmised, is a eponym — named after the brilliant Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Before we define the conundrum, let’s place the writer in proper context. Borges is considered one of the most influential writers of all time, writing imaginative short stories that eschew the conventions of modern short fiction. American writer Susan Sontag proclaimed, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.”

If you have never read a Borges short story, you are in for a real treat. As fellow Argentine writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares (he wrote the fantastic The Invention of Morel which greatly influenced the ABC hit series Lost), once noted, Borges’ writings are “halfway houses between an essay and a story.” Borges’ short stories, which often focus on the notion of the infinite, paradoxes, and interconnectedness of all things, are characterized by abrupt beginnings or endings; feature fantastic, complex, intellectual landscapes; lack traditional characteristics like plot, cause-and-effect, and conflict; and present the reader with fascinating, dazzling lessons about arcane topics. Not only was Borges a great writer, he was also an insatiable reader; as a boy he spent a great deal of time in libraries. That lifelong erudition is reflected in his stories and essays.

Knowing something about the writer now places you in a position to better appreciate the definition of the Borgesian Conundrum. In short, the Borgesian Conundrum poses the following ontological question: does the writer write the story, or does the story write the writer? Sounds like a quintessential Borges essay, doesn’t it? According to Wikipedia, the conundrum is alluded to in this passage from Borges’ essay, “Kafka and His Precursors,” published in the book Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1988): “If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. The second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

Not so fast Wikipedia! The discerning, literary-minded folks at Weekly Wonder blog believe this particular passage is not necessarily support the Borgesian Conundrum. One of the editors elaborates: “As much as I appreciate ‘Kafka and His Precursors,’ I do not understand how the philosophers get the Borgesian conundrum from this essay: rather, if there is a question in this essay it is not “does the author create the story or the story, the author?” but “how does a writer create his own precursors?” Touché! The editor suggests a more relevant passage from an essay titled “Borges and I”:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges
https://weekly-wonder-blog.tumblr.com/post/102354267041/borgesian-conundrum


What is the Meaning of “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesYou’ve probably heard this little chestnut a million times: “a stitch in time saves nine.” WTF? Nine what? And who the heck stitches time? Does this assume you are some sort of seamstress/theoretical physicist (a cross between Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein) who can gather up the time continuum, feed it through a sewing machine, and place a neat hem stitching to hold it together? Or this something that requires “Back to the Future” gear, like the DeLorian DMC-12, C6 2.9L with built-in Flux Capacitor? This is some pretty trippy stuff. One can imagine counterculture psychedelic guru Timothy Leary discussing this proverb: “I can explain it to you — but it will blow your mind, man! Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Before we head to outer space, let’s begin our journey of discovery on terra firma. Many proverbs originated in the Enlightenment, a time when people were less focused on psychedelic trips and more focused on intellectual and spiritual growth, not to mention practical improvements in everyday life — hence the proliferation of wisdom via memorable proverbs. Proverbs from those times often use rather dated diction, sentence structure, as well as refer to antiquated practices and contexts. This particular proverb checks two of those boxes: it has an odd sentence structure and refers to sewing (not obsolete, of course, but who sews these days?). So to answer the first question posed at the outset, nine refers to stitches: a stitch in time saves nine stitches. The unusual structure is that the sentence is truncated (the removal of key words) and missing punctuation that would help to clarify it: so re-written in modern English, it would appear as: “A stitch, completed in time (i.e., now), saves having to complete nine stitches later.” Much clearer, right? And that re-written form of this metaphorical epigram (the technical rhetorical term for this type of proverb) gets to its true meaning: don’t procrastinate! That is to say, fix it now, while the problem is small and manageable before it gets to be a real cluster fuck! See — those early Europeans knew a thing or two about life!

Now that we understand the meaning, let’s trace its origins as best we can, thanks to two old proverb reference books. The proverb first appears in England in 1732 as noted in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern Foreign and British: “a stitch in time may save nine.” The proverb next appears in print over a half century later in Bartlett Whiting’s his seminal work, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, published in 1797. Time and travel across the pond have modified the proverb a tiny bit: “a stitch in time saves nine” as it is recorded in an early American journal. It is in the formal journal, that we get some insight into the diction. Fuller enlightens us: “Because verses are easier got by heart, and stick faster in the memory than prose; and because ordinary people use to be much taken with the clinking of syllables; many of our proverbs are so formed, and very often put into false rhymes; as, a stitch in time, may save nine; many a little will make a mickle. This little artiface, I imagine, was contrived purposely to make the sense abide the longer in the memory, by reason of its oddness and archness.” To be more specific, the proverb uses a half, or imperfect rhyme (rhyming “nine” with “time”) in order to make it more memorable.

There are several other proverbs that address procrastination, for example: “There’s no time like the present” and “An ounce of presentation is worth a pound of cure.”

Sewing class is now dismissed.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases by Bartlett Whiting
Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs by Thomas Fuller
https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-stitch-in-time.html


Origins of “Talk Turkey” and “Quit Cold Turkey”

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAs Turkey Day approaches, curious minds ponder turkey related phrases, like “talking turkey” or “quitting cold turkey.” So why do we single out the poor turkey and imply that they are frigid? (Around this time of year we should pity them for the sacrifice they must make. No wonder those unfortunate beasts cower at the very mention of Thanksgiving Day. ) We don’t say, “I quit my Netflix binging cold monkey” or “I quit my addiction to Fortnite cold salamander.” Those statements sound so amazingly weird, don’t they?

Although they have different meanings, “talking turkey” means talking frankly and seriously while “quitting cold turkey” means quitting something suddenly and completely (typically used in context of a bad habit like smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs), both phrases are closely related. Let’s step into the time machine and visit the early 19th century to learn how these phrases came about.

First, if you are American, you can take pride that both are true Americanisms (made in the USA!). The earliest recorded appearance of either phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is in the early 1800s. Specifically, “talking turkey” appears in 1824 referring to speaking affably or frankly: “So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard)… will accuse me of not talking turkey.” So how did turkeys getting linked with talking — especially since they gobble? Lexicographers surmise that when settlers and Native Americans went hunting for wild turkeys, at the end of the hunt, they had to divide the spoils. If one of the hunters said, “talk turkey for Indian,” that meant that the Native American received a turkey. (Certainly, the Native American did not want to hear the settler talking buzzard.) Another explanation for the phrase was that the settlers encountered Native Americans, they often asked about the supply of wild turkeys; that is to say, they came to “talk turkey.” Finally, turkeys, being social birds (running around in flocks), came to represent individuals engaged in conversation. Gobble! Gobble!

The use of “taking turkey” slowly changed in meaning from talking affably to talking plainly or directly. We see this use in Dialect Notes from 1903: “I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.” Over a period of about two decades, a variant of “talking turkey” arose: “talking cold turkey.” To talk cold turkey meant getting straight to the point, without delay or mincing words. The Random House Dictionary of American Historical Slang cites this entry from 1920: “Now tell me on the square — can I get by with this for the wedding — don’t string me — tell me cold turkey.” And from a 1922 letter from American poet and journalist Carl Sandburg: “I’m going to talk cold turkey with booksellers about the hot gravy in the stories.” LOL — Sandburg talking turkey!

Shortly after, the meaning of cold turkey morphs into “stopping suddenly” and is applied to addictions. The OED cites an article in the Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C., 1921) that states: “Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon … are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.” Well, thank you very much for that etymological contribution Dr. Simon!

So now you can dazzle your guests by talking turkey at Thanksgiving dinner with this fascinating etymology of “talking turkey” and “cold turkey.” And can you please pass the gravy…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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What is the Meaning of “Six Ways From Sunday?”

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesWriting about Leonard Cohen’s famous song Hallelujah, a music critic wrote: “First released in 1984, [Hallelujah] has been covered six ways from Sunday by a wide range of artists (from Jeff Buckley to Bon Jovi).” Say what? What does “six ways from Sunday” mean?

Just like the aforementioned Cohen song, this phrase is a bit of chameleon, changing over time, shifting in wording depending on the speaker or writer. The phrase has a number of variants — seems like no one can decide just how many ways from Sunday to emphasize. Variants include: “two ways to Sunday,” “three ways to Sunday,” “four ways to Sunday,” “four different ways to Sunday,” “five ways to Sunday,” “seven ways to Sunday,” “eight ways to Sunday,” “nine ways to Sunday,” “ten ways to Sunday,” “twelve ways to Sunday,” “twenty ways to Sunday,” “forty ways till Sunday,” and then a giant leap to “hundred ways to Sunday.” And then there is the variation of the preposition: six ways to Sunday, or six ways from Sunday.

Despite the various wording of the phrases, however, their meanings remains the same: “six ways from Sunday” (the most common form of the idiom) means “in every possible way,” “completely,” or “thoroughly.” The phrase “six ways for Sunday” makes its first appearance in the early 1800s, while the more common version, “six ways from Sunday” first appears in the late 1800s. “So how did it come about?” you ask. Excellent question; however, the inspiration is not fully known. Lexicographers have surmised that since a calendar has six days before (or after) Sunday, the idiom underscores the certainty of reaching Sunday no matter where you begin. Moreover, the idiom implies that there are multiple methods of approach to Sunday, thus applied generally, it means many options to reach the same target — in short, thoroughness.

The precise origin of this phrase is not clear and has perplexed many lexicographers. However, lexicographer Michael Quinion offers perhaps what is the most compelling — and only — explanation. He cites a passage from James Pauling’s short story, “Cobus Yerks” (1828) as the first formulation of the phrase in America (a variant of the modern form we recognize today): “looked at least nine ways from Sunday.” Quinion suggests that this phrase is an amalgamation of two earlier British slang phrases: “she had look’d nine ways” (1622) and “looking both ways for Sunday” (1785). Over the years, of course, other writers severed the association with the verb “look” (making the phrase far more versatile) and tinkered with the number of ways. Quinion adds: “Sunday was presumably chosen because it would have been regarded as the most significant day of the week. The most common form probably owes its success to the alliteration of Sunday with six and a false mental association with a complete week.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/see-eric-churchs-hushed-hallelujah-cover-at-red-rocks-117760/meaning
http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-six3.htm


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