The lemmings of paradox make a quantum leap

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE HAD a welcome visit from Dr Wordsmith yesterday, giving us the benefit of his linguistic knowledge - and knowledge of the world - to enlighten us on all sorts of verbal paradoxes. He was in mid-flow answering your queries when we ran out of space, so let's carry on where we left off !

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I take your point that `making a beeline for something' is paradoxical, because bees never seem to go straight to anywhere, so a `beeline' is really crooked, not straight, but surely this ignorance is typical of metaphors based on the natural world? I mean, we talk about someone up against it as leading a `dog's life', whereas dogs have a pretty good life on the whole...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not in Britain they don't. They're all locked up in council flats all day long. This rumour about the British being good to animals and pets is a rumour that is put out by the British. The paradox here is that the French are in fact more given to pampering their pets than we are. They just don't go on about it as we do, that's all.

If you want a real paradox, what about this one? I maintain that all the things for which the British or English are supposedly best known in the world - their love of animals, their sense of humour, their sense of honour ("an Englishman's word is his bond" and all that) - are British propaganda. But this propaganda is fed only to the British and therefore these "well-known" facts are not only not well-known, but false.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, What about quantum leaps?

Dr Wordsmith writes: What about quantum leaps?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, you can hardly open a paper these days without someone writing in to point out that a quantum leap is used to mean an enormous change, whereas in physics it is really a tiny, tiny change.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I'm sure you're right. It's the same with lemmings. Every time someone talks about a crowd behaving like a mob of lemmings going over a cliff, someone writes in to point out that lemmings do not, in fact, do that. Anyway, why use lemmings as an example? What's wrong with Gadarene swine?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Coming a bit more up to date, surely the most glaring example of a paradox can be found on the Internet. This famous online bookshop, which is called Amazon dot com or whatever it's called, is famed for being the most valuable stock on the Net, but it makes a great big annual loss. Isn't that a touch paradoxical?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not so much as the fact that the most famous computer- based concern actually sells books, and books are such an anti-computer item! In fact, I am perpetually amazed that when any computer buff wants to get new information on computers, he buys a magazine, in other words something printed on old-fashioned paper. I am also amazed that computer magazines are so badly designed. Also, I am amazed that Amazon dot com was allowed to call itself that when Amazon would have been more suitable for a website for militant feminists. Or, indeed, a river in Brazil. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, As a woman, I can give you another neat paradox in modern life. It is getting unsafe for women to be out alone at night these days, for fear of attack or molesting. Therefore, it is argued, women should stay at home when it is dark. That is a paradox. It is not women who cause the trouble. It is men. Therefore the problem can be completely cured by MEN being obliged to stay at home after dark, not women.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Excellent! And the next?

Dear Dr Wordsmith: Try this one for size. I have noticed that lots of buildings that are listed for preservation tend to get burnt or knocked down `by accident' if the owners need to develop the site. The same is true of `sites of special scientific interest', which are always getting ploughed up `accidentally' by farmers who want to reuse the land. Would it not be possible to propose, paradoxically, that land and buildings that are listed for preservation are MORE likely to be destroyed and redeveloped than those that are not so listed?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You may well be right. Which reminds me that that venerable building, the pub known as The Printer's Widow, is also protected by a preservation order and if I do not hie myself there in double quick time, it may have been pulled down. OK, everybody - last to the saloon bar is a cissy!

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon, so keep those queries rolling in!