Essays About


I doubt the phrase "The Great Recession," as applied to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, is destined for future history books. The word "recession," by reminding us of the weightier word "depression," undercuts the adjective "great." How can it have been great if it was not great enough to be a depression? It is only great in a lesser class, a superstar of the minor league.

The phrase's makers and repeaters commit the error of overestimating the magnitude of events they happen to live through. They judge from within, like farmers in tornados who, because the sky turns black and the wind blows the roof off their house, declare the apocalypse come, though at the moment of their prophecy most of the globe basks in sunlight.

Visiting foreign countries, I can never suppress a sense of the inefficiency of humanity speaking multiple languages. Each language repeats with slight variation what every other language already says, like people in group discussions who, to assert themselves, restate in their own words and examples every comment anyone makes. The redundancy of languages suggests the lack of a world supervisor. Earth's societies are like children playing without an adult, each making its own rules which no one else abides by.

Abroad, I experience life like a deaf person, interpreting faces instead of phrases. Watching old Greek women make small talk by a storefront or Italian cab drivers hurl angry sounds at other drivers, like cab drivers at home, I feel falsely divided from my fellow humans. Beneath their opaque words are recognizable actions and emotions. Nature gave them and me the same brain, but culture divided us with different sounds for getting our thoughts out.

I grant that linguistic diversity adds color to the world, and that I will never know Dante truly if I read him in translation, but the bar of cosmopolitanism is too high. I tend to give up learning languages after a few months, for it is odious to regress from a mastery of English to a second-grade knowledge of French or German—from deciphering Melville to deciphering menus.

I sympathize with religions that see language as God's gift and diversity of language as God's curse. Humanity has over-solved the problem of communication. Once, we were isolated from each other by lack of speech. Now, by excess.

"I apologize for any inconvenience." That is, "I regret (out of prudence rather than contrition) if your excessive sensitivity falsely found fault with my innocent actions."

The word "death" is a strong and solid word that does not blush or flinch, calling life's terminus by its first name, without apology. But most people euphemize death with the softer phrase "passed away". To pass away suggests a gentle and painless transition from one state to another, like chilled water passing imperceptibly into ice. Thereby words conceal from thoughts the horrors of violent accidents and the wracking agonies of terminal illness, as if everyone, instead of only a lucky few, died peacefully in his sleep. And where we peacefully pass is "away", a nebulous word that does not suggest a termination, but neither specifies a destination. It is a kind of leaving off, a gesture of open-endedness, an ellipsis at sentence's end. It is, accordingly, the perfect word for the skeptical yet sentimental modern mind, which cannot accept annihilation, nor easily believe in immortality. "Passed away" allows vague hope without dogma, as if to say, "He has gone somewhere else, please don't ask for details."