Harsh Language and Mockery

English is a crude, harsh, insensitive language. We ask ,”How old are you?” How crass is that? Let’s put some emphasis on certain words to show just how crude it is. “How old ARE you?” As in, “Are you older than dirt?” Or, “How old are YOU?” That suggests a challenge to the target’s legitimacy or competence.

The language would be gentler and more compassionate if our question were presented from a different perspective: “How young are you?” But that way of putting the question is biased in the other direction. It might be interpreted to mean, “How inexperienced are you?” So, is there no way of inquiring about a person’s age without seeming judgmental and cruel? Of course there is. We could ask, simply, “What is your age?”

In Spanish, though, the question is this: “Cuantos años tienes?” Translated into English, it asks, “How many years do you have?” But German has the same crassness that sullies the English language. Google translates the English “How old are you into the German “Wie alt bist?” But remove the “wie” from the sentence and the translation becomes, “Are you old?” The core question seems geared toward that judgmental query. “Are you old?” That’s the question underlying the curiosity, isn’t it? Yet, when we make an age-related inquiry of a person who obviously has collected considerable experience living, the question can be interpreted to mean, “How long until you die?”

Italian, like Spanish, is a gentler inquiry: “Quanti anni hai?” Again, the literal translation is “How many years do you have?” Bosnian presented the question as follows: “Koliko imaš godina?” The literal translation: “How many years do you have?” Some languages are more polite and less intrusive, even though they are getting at the same thing: “Are you old?”

What if we shift gears and ask “What is your IQ?” Implicit in the question is the underlying curiosity about the target person’s degree of simple-mindedness, isn’t it? We may attempt to imply admiration for the person’s intellect, but the question is really attempting to discern the extent to which we are correct in our estimation that her IQ hovers somewhere around the mid sixties.  Why does IQ matter, by the way? Well, it depends. IQ (AKA intelligence quotient) is said to measure the extent to which a person can acquire and apply knowledge. IQ doesn’t measure a person’s general knowledge of facts; instead, it measures intelligence functions like problem-solving skills, pattern recognition, mathematical logic, and identifying relationships between verbal concepts. IQ matters only to the extent that we need to be able to accurately estimate whether a person can acquire and apply knowledge in those areas. But we tend to treat it like it measures a person’s intrinsic worth. Sort of like we treat age. Young is good if we need strength and agility, whereas old is bad if those are our needs. Young is a bad predictor of capability if we need experience with cunning and treachery, whereas old is a good predictor of those capabilities. [I am smiling as I write this, so please do not have me arrested for age-related libel.]

People with high IQs can join an organization like American Mensa, Mensa International, and (for EXTREMELY intelligent people) the Prometheus Society. Membership labels their members as having above-average intelligence (far above average for the Prometheus Society). The organizations’ members are assumed to be extremely curious. Is there a like organization for those whose IQs are below-average? A fictional organization called Densa, intended to parody Mensa, was dreamed up sometime before the early 1980s. Reliable information about Densa is hard to find. I suspect membership in Densa would be based on achieving extremely low scores on a test that measures general knowledge. A sample question might be, “What is the opposite of up?” The multiple choice options for the answer to the question could be: a) pretty; b) seven; c) elastic; and d) down.

The humor in labeling people “dumb,” whether using a fictitious test or a comparison with people of superior intelligence, equates to the harshness of language. We might as well join the concepts of age and intellect together and ask, “Are you old and stupid?”

I have better ways of asking a person’s age. “How many times have you experienced New Year’s Day?” Or, “How many years ago did your mother give birth to you?” You might be able to get away with, “How old was your mother when you were born?” followed by “How old is she/would she be now?” Those will work only if the person to whom you are talking is not the sharpest knife in life’s drawer. I once asked a woman how old she was when her son was born, after hearing her say her son was eight years old. She caught on right away and embarrassed me by calling me on it.

It’s later than I thought it was. I got up after six, so I’m out of sync with the day. I have to stop attempting to write and be satisfied in the knowledge that I tried and failed.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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