Monday, July 11, 2005

The Magic of Trite Phrases

Channel surfing Sunday afternoon rendered this little nugget: "When we come back, Pompei reveals its treasures, and the city is resurrected through the magic of the computer."

Sigh. Silly me, I keep thinking we've progressed beyond the uncomprehending amazement required to use phrases like "the magic of the computer". Magic, in this sense, is used to mean "something that works although no one really understands why" (according to Merriam-Webster), or more precisely here, "...although I, the speaker, don't really understand why".

I'm sorry, but the word "magic" really is not meant for this kind of situation, unless you are dazzled by flying carriages and moving pictures and my boomstick! While computers are really cool and powerful and efficient and, for sometimes several blissful minutes at a time, even bug-free, I guess I don't want to believe that anyone in the 21st-century United States should still view them as "magical"--especially anyone hosting a tv show dedicated to the scientific investigation of mysteries of ancient history. I think it was Leonard Nimoy.

Why am I talking about computers in a blog about language? Well, it becomes a matter of language when you consider that the speaker, or actually the script writer for the show, may not really be as ignorant as his speech suggests--at least not about computers. It may be that he knows a lot about computers; almost any competent user in America under the level of hacker might use the phrase if they're lazy enough in their speech. The point is, it's a phrase that got used so much when computers were still all mystical and magical, that it's now one of those sets of words that people now think of in a group, and use without thinking. It's the linguistic path of least resistance: as soon as the concepts of "by means of" and "computer" appear in the mind, the words "through the magic of the computer" form naturally--and isn't it easier when we don't have to think about our words before we say them!

The quick-witted among my reader or readers (it is a new blog, after all) may at this point perceive a certain irony in the juxtaposition of my complaining about people not deliberating over every word, in a blog post that's hardly going to go through intense revisions and drafting before it gets published and, since it's 3 in the morning, probably repeats itself and probably repeats itself and may even use overused phrases of its own. But then, I'm not getting paid the big bucks for a national television show.

Time to click "Submit". Or should it say "mischief managed"?



Svenyboy said...


That certainly was a rant: poor Spock's ears must be positively aflame.

Did you consider that perhaps he meant "the magical experience as enabled through the technology of computers", as opposed to some kind of microchip-based sorcery? For some the recreation of Pompeii via whatever means might be considered a "magical experience". Disneyland is no less a "magical experience" for a child simply because Pluto is six feet tall with an acrylic face and polyester fur.

In this case, I doubt anyone watching the show would have the slightest interst in the technical wizardry used to create the life-like graphics or accurate perspectives. (Wizard, by the way, is defined in the OED as "a person extraordinarily skilled at", thus the historical talents of such a person - namely magic - have been adapted, not unsympathetically, to match this description).

Just a thought. Perhaps we should champion words that do fit the descriptive bill,such as 'automagically', so people might start to use them more! You never know!

Anyway, as you were.

King Alfred said...

Welcome to my court, svenyboy.

"Magical experience" would definitely have been a better choice of words. And there's my point: we are saying what he meant, because we know that magic should have modified the object, not the means. Uncovering the secrets of history through archaeology and other achievements of modern man is magical; the technical wizardry is, as you say, irrelevant to most viewers. It's not so much the science that's the problem, but the communication that, while it got the job done, was merely average in its precision--not so much Spock's fault, as Uhura's.

I never said I wasn't picky. *s*

Svenyboy said...

Perhaps we should simply celebrate his mastery of the language at all. Being an alien and all it's a miracle evolution gave him the requisite body parts for english at all.

Why do no Star Trek aliens use sonar?