… No, not the sort that makes you sweat and have to wash your hands over and over and — wait. That’s just me? Fine. But here’s what I mean.
In the last few days, a meme started going around the Book of Faces:
This sort of junk has been circulating pretty frequently on social media — a similar one deals with Arby’s name being derived from RB for roast beef. (In fact, it comes from the Raffel Brothers, who founded the chain.) And of course, there are similar backronyms for some of our better known obscenities, such as “Ship High In Transit”, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge/Fornication Under Consent of the King”, and even for such innocent words as posh (“Port Out, Starboard Home.”) When I’ve encountered this sort of thing in the past, I’ve either tended to let it go or to present the countervailing fact in a comment. And in fact, that’s what I did a couple of times yesterday, using the OED entry for the game of tag as my evidence. (The Arby’s thing can be found on St. Wiki.)
But then I thought, what if I take my buzzkilling to a larger stage? So I put up my own post:
Folks, the game of Tag did not get its name from “Touch And Go.” The OED traces the word to at least the 18th C., but notes the origin is pretty much untraceable. You’re mistaking a backronym for etymology. Stop it.
It seems to have drawn a fair amount of attention from my online connections, and thus far, that attention has been positive. But this morning as I showered (while washing my hands over and OVER, and… ahem.), I thought, “What if more of us did that?” We all know things that contravene the silliness we see online. We don’t have to be responsible for knowing everything about everything, but there are small things on which the people around us know they can trust us. Why don’t we reply (good-naturedly, and without taking ourselves terribly seriously) with accuracy when we see these things?
Now at this point, I hear you yelling “Snopes! You’ve invented Snopes!” But I think the difference may involve ethos, the aspect of rhetorical effectiveness based on the speaker’s character, both going in and as developed/exposed in the process of communication itself. It’s trustworthiness in expectation and action. And I think this is key.
The Mad Dog is fond of debunking some of the weirder claims we run across on social media with links to Snopes. Alas, much of his audience will then go on to say that Snopes is not an honest broker. Similarly, purported fact-checkers can sometimes be seen as having a thumb on the scale. It’s now a problem of ethos, not one of fact or reason. (Of course, the vulgar postmodernism that infects our culture puts even terms like fact and reason in scare quotes of subjectivity, but that may make ethos even more critical.)
So where does that leave us? We each have people who trust us — people for whom our ethos is established. Further, those people know there are matters about which we have reliable knowledge. So I say, don’t worry about correcting the world. Just tell the truth to your friends when you see nonsense in an area in which they will trust you. Now, there are areas in which we aren’t expert, and there are areas which I think are beyond the discourse I’m talking about — matters of opinion and faith, for example. This is why we have to maintain humility and good humor, and know the limits of our individual gardens of ideas.
But if we tend our own gardens well, and if we can show our neighbors how to deal with the weeds they know we recognize, it might make the whole neighborhood look better.