Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought ā€” George Orwell

How much is that snowstorm in the window?

Posted by metaphorical on 11 February 2007

Suburban Diner, Paramus, N.J.
A Sunday morning, seated at the counter

Waitress:
 So we’re going to get a big snowstorm Tuesday night?

Woman to my left:
 It may miss us.

Waitress:
 I saw where some place upstate… Parish? Had 110 inches of snow.

Woman:
 Where?

Waitress:
 Parish? Somewhere near Syracuse maybe? Up near the Canadian border, I guess.

Woman:
 110 inches!

Me:
 That has to be for the whole year.

Man in booth behind us:
 Nope, the last 4 or 5 days.

Me:
 110 inches?!

Man:
 They had two and a half inches an hour, steady.

Me:
 That’s a lot of snow.

Woman:
 Yeah. What is that, 7 or 8 feet?

I should be over it by now, but the innumeracy of people who were somehow awarded high school diplomas (and often college ones) can still stun me, over and over again.

This woman, presumably, knows what an inch is, in some sense, and what a foot is, but can she really be said to understand either of them if she doesn’t get the relationship between them? Maybe she could have worked it out on an SAT test, but shouldn’t some numerical relationships be understood without having to be worked out? How long would it have taken her to say how many quarters make four dollars?

We have so many crutches these days. In the same way that people in suburbia can drive from parking lot to parking lot, and never walk the way New Yorkers do, people don’t do enough math to keep those mental muscles strong and limber. Calculators, digital watches, cash registers that don’t use numbers. (I’ve seen people in restaurants use calculators to divide a check by 3, or to figure out a tip, even though doubling the tax is a very amiable 16.5%.)

So you can get by without having a feel for numbers, but I would think you miss out on a lot. Jane is 27 and her mother is 51. How old was she when Jane was born? The innumerate person would have to ask. If Jack is driving to a city 700 miles away, the innumerate person won’t get right away that it can be done in a long day, nor have any idea how much the gas for such a trip costs. They can’t bargain in a foreign currency, work out the calories in a meal, or figure out what time a movie will end. That can’t be fun.

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2 Responses to “How much is that snowstorm in the window?”

  1. CMD said

    Not quite the same thing, I know, but my painful conversational adjacency of the week came when the two college-aged students sitting next to me in the coffee shop had a long, painfully confused chat about The Sound and the Fury, John Steinbeck’s greatest novel.

  2. I never had a name for it, but Painful Conversational Adjacency is just about perfect.

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