Reversals: Coinings for the other side of the coin

Mind Reader’s Dictionary started out as a real dictionary. I wanted to collect and systematize the jargon of mind reading. I wanted the everyday terms such as mudslinging, preaching to the converted, and talking your ear off. I wanted to include the technical terms too, such as confirmation bias, satisficing, and ad hominem argument.

I figured that mind reading was something we all do a lot, and that success and failure in life depends upon our doing it well. I noticed that we’re pretty casual about learning its intricacies. Most of us apply ourselves much more rigorously to learning the jargon of a vocation or avocation than we do to learning that of mind reading, even though mind reading is crucial to success no matter what vocation or avocation we pursue. I wanted to collect and systematize state-of-the-art mind reading jargon.

We worry about jargon’s proliferation without recognizing its utility. Jargon in any field gives you the elements from which to compose sophisticated and subtle mental models. Chemistry’s vast and systematized technical vocabulary enables the chemist to recognize and imagine all manner of molecular configurations and interactions. Likewise, a more comprehensive and systematized mind reading vocabulary would enable us to recognize with subtlety whatever flies by in thought and conversation. If your mind reading jargon is limited you lose the subtleties—or worse, you shoe-horn all behavior into a crude categories.

As I started to get systematic about collecting and organizing the jargon, I noticed gaps: some very common patterns of behavior had no names at all. I became a neologist, filling the gaps as I discovered them. Often, I would find a term that describes a particular human behavior but not a term for its opposite. So a lot of the terms I’ve coined have been antonyms for common mind reading terms.

Take euphemism. Using euphemism means describing something troubling as though it were fine or good. For example, describing time in jail as “exploring life within a structured environment.” Euphemisms signal “no cause for alarm” where otherwise we would experience alarm.

The opposite of euphemism doesn’t have a name even though people are just as likely to signal “alarm” where otherwise we wouldn’t experience it. There’s no word for doing that. Eu- means well. And dys- means unwell, so maybe we need the word dysphemism? Bush wanted to end inheritance tax, so he called it a “death tax,” which sounds alarming. “Death tax” is a dysphemism.

“Death tax” sounds like a bad thing. It’s a pejorative. But not all pejoratives are dysphemisms—rather than make a good thing sound bad, some pejoratives just make a bad thing sound bad.

There’s no opposite for pejorative even though casting things in a positive light (deserved or underserved) is as likely as casting them in a negative one.

We can talk about words with positive and negative connotations , but why should there be a special word for terms with negative connotations when there isn’t

 

one for terms with positive connotations? In Latin, pejor means worse and mejor means better. So maybe the opposite of pejoratives should be called mejoratives.

“Wishful thinking” is a pejorative. It means wrongly believing that something is true because you hope it is. We have more positive sounding equivalents in terms like “optimism,” and “the power of suggestion.” But we don’t have a term for the opposite action to wishful thinking--believing something must be true because you hope it isn’t.

Dreadful thinking , maybe. Dreadful thinking is a real problem these days. A lot of ideas are promoted as true, primarily because they’re so disturbing anyone would hope they weren’t. The message between the lines in some of the new anti-religion books is: Face it, you’re just a soul-less computer that evolved by random chance in order to make offspring. If you doubt it, it’s just because your wishful thinking is biasing you. It’s like that Jack Nicholson line, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth.”

Neither our preferences nor our aversions bear on the truth value of an idea. Some of the things I hope are true really are true, though some are not. Some of the things I dread are also true, though some are not.

One more: When someone wins a battle but loses the war we call it a pyrrhic victory . But what about losing the battle but winning the war? Doesn’t that happen as often? Why don’t we refer to pyrrhic defeats ? In a pyrrhic defeat, you suffer the short-term consequences of losing arguments, friends, money, influence, but in the long term, you prevail.

In a brief spate of wishful thinking, I once thought my neologisms would become household words. After all, they fill important gaps, offsetting the lopsidedness of our language.

But language doesn’t absorb just any coining. It has no suggestion box for petitions to establish new household words, and if it did the box would be overstuffed because a whole lot of us dream of making something or someone a household word.

For the most part then, I use my neologisms in my head and not in conversation. But even as unspoken mental flags I find them useful, so I’m tempted to share them from time to time.

In Robert Greene’s very popular book “ The 48 Laws of Power, ” many chapters end with what he refers to as “reversals.” Reversals are situations in which it is better to do the opposite of what the law says. As he presents them, it isn’t generally clear when to abide by the law, and when by the reversal.

I think that knowing the laws and their reversals, and being able to remember them both, and the confusion about when to do which makes you a better mind reader. When you’re at the busy intersections, look both ways.

On the road please avoid the rough sidelines.
There are two of them; use both as guidelines.
Left avoidance just might
Skid you off on the right.
Hard leaning won’t keep you off land mines.

 

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