Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Want Another Plate of Shrimp? Etymological Signposts to the Collective Unconscious

Hotel (2010). © By Majora28 (homepage here). Reproduced with kind permission.

Occasionally, the MSM sites put out funny little reports that some bizarre new word has made it into the dictionary as part of their offbeat commentaries on how the impact of the Tech Revolution is changing our language and thus, affecting the way we communicate organically as well as mechanically. Usually these hot new words are cribbed from the user-generated Urban Dictionary or Netspeak.  For example, Time recently reported here that 'Zombie Bank' and 'BFF' made it into the most recent edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Of course, the OED and its variants are renowned as much for their historical etymologies as they are for scooping up the latest words from the wash of pop culture that not everyone even considers words yet.  One portmanteau that I am starting to see, and wishing I wasn't, is 'underdig,' a dismal combination of 'to dig something' in a 60s' sense (as in, to 'really understand something') and 'to understand.'  Aside from these newcomers, what I've found equally interesting is the resurgence of certain standard words which suddenly, thanks to technology, I hear everyone saying.  I'd say this dynamic of particular words becoming popular is a sign of how the collective unconscious works.

Etymology of the word, 'hoden,' referring to a Kentish superstition about a mystic man-horse creature.

For those of you who don't get your kicks from reading the dictionary, I can assure you that the full volume edition of the OED does have its moments (the main homepage is here).  Every entry has a full history of the word, starting with the first appearance of the word in the English language and its subsequent popular appearances and changes in meaning in later years.  Similar efforts to standardize languages while tracing their histories have been made by the Dutch with the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal; the Grimm brothers, with the Deutsches Wörterbuch for German; the Italians Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca; the Spanish  Diccionario de la lengua española; and the Kangxi dictionary compiled by the Chinese.  To see a virtual example, see the Online Etymology Dictionary here.

Etymology of the word, 'treeware,' draft OED entry from 2006.

But then there's the question of how etymology works.  Why do some words float to the surface and suddenly become popular these days?  Sometimes over the past decade, I'd notice that I heard certain words a lot, out of the blue, like salient (2002); liminal (2006); trajectory (2009); and iconoclastic (2010).  Then these words fade in popularity and are replaced by others. 

Remember 1984's cult hit movie, Repo Man?  It's made a comeback in popularity with 2010's film Repo Men.  One of the most often quoted lines from Repo Man supposedly proved Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious: "A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly somebody'll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o' shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconciousness."

Miller's 'plate of shrimp' speech on cosmic unconscious and time travel. Repo Man (1984). Edge City/Universal Pictures.

If you don't want to bring Jung into this, these trends are likely a reflection of the internet's immense impact on our language, how we communicate, and the hidden dynamics of our social and psychological responses to these huge changes.  Another trend is the transformation of nouns and adjectives into verbs - and widespread confusion between contractions and possessives (it's versus its).

Calvin and Hobbes © Bill Watterson.

Shortly before his death, Peter F. Drucker argued that the invention of the Internet and the whole Tech Revolution were as big as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440.  And in case you think religion is all about faith, consider that it's also about how we communicate.  The invention of the printing press enabled the widespread publication and reinterpretation of the Bible - which finally boiled up into the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century.  It's no wonder that right when we revolutionize our methods of communicating, various religious faiths are enjoying equally revolutionary resurgences.


  1. I think that a better translation of 'underdig' is "I don't genuinely understand what you're saying (else I'd use the word 'understand'), but I want you to treat me as though I do because I need your trust for exploitative purposes". It's like a pan-generational version of Murray The K in a Beatle wig.

    The "Plate of Shrimp" speech (which inspired the name of a rock band, by the way) points out an effect many of us experience in different contexts. You may buy a certain model car and then begin seeing that model everywhere, or a friend might move to a different state and you later notice that state being mentioned more frequently in the news. That effect is widely assumed to be a matter of perception; our world is filled with countless discrete units of information and for the sake of our sanity our brains are wired to filter out much of it without filtering all of it. Mentioning the plate of shrimp rejiggers the priorities, however temporarily, to be more sensitive to the image or its parts and notice them in the stream where previously they would have blown past us. It's the analogue of the 'City Mouse/Country Mouse' effect.

    The big question the speech (and the film) poses is whether the pieces of information that are brought to our attention really are part of a shared consciousness or not and if there are pieces of information of which none of us are conscious, even when they are brought to our attention because the filters we have developed are really that strong. Our experiences in life lead us to suspect that if you find a Christmas or birthday present wrapped up in a car belonging to a stranger, and all you know about this stranger is that they can't or won't pay their bills, then it is reasonable to believe that the contents are of no worth or use to you or anyone but as a token gesture to the third party for whom it was intended. It would not be reasonable to assume, as you tossed it out the window of the moving car, that the box would be stuffed with money.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment pblfsda - I love your Doom Patrol blog, and I'm very glad the DP is enjoying a renaissance right now. They fit with the times.

    As for collective unconscious or lack thereof, yes, it is a question of whether the coincidences we perceive in thing derive internally and subjectively - are we imposing sense from within our own minds onto the world? Or is there an objective reality beyond our ken that exists independently and makes sense that we dimly pick up on from time to time? I think there are different ways of trying to get at that problem, including religion, art, language, and various philosophical schools of thought. History as a discipline is a more dependent upon evidence, so one could argue that even if millions of different people have different perceptions of World War I, everyone can pretty much agree that something terrible which we call World War I happened. Even then, that historical confidence in reality and the objective patterns it may possess is subject to political attack and manipulation. That's one of the tragic consequences of twentieth century history: the discovery of propaganda as a reworking of historical facts, and the recognition that history can grant its present manipulators tremendous power, precisely because it can be manipulated and changed to suit political agendas. The politicization and relativization of history made the discipline one of the most dangerous liberal arts, precisely because it possesses this veil of credibility. A historical account assures us that it discusses fact, when it too is irreconcilably entangled with the opinion of the historian.

    All the same, I can't help feeling that the Postmodern conviction that there is no escape from the bell jar of subjective perception is the source of much of this trouble. I don't have much confidence in Postmodernism actually explaining anything by denying objective truth, particularly because Postmodernism has revealed itself to be an ideology that allows its adherents to acquire power in the universities and more extensively in public life. To me, that power grab on the part of Postmodernists is the 'historical fact' - the kernel of objective reality if you will - at the core of all this chat about reality only existing in our heads and having no other meaning otherwise.