What is the meaning of a word?’ Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked Bertrand Russell but the answer he got was incomprehensible to the rest of us. If only he had asked Samsundar Balgobin instead. How different linguistic philosophy might then have been.
This young Guyanese has been able to explain the difference between complete and finished in a way that resolves forever the ambiguity inherent in the two words. No dictionary has done it so effectively.
At a recent linguistic conference in London Balgobin was asked: “Some people say there is no difference between complete and finished. Please explain the difference between the two words in a way that is easy to understand.”
Here is his astute answer which would have made Russell hugely jealous but fully satisfied Wittgenstein.
“When you marry the right woman, you are complete. But, when you marry the wrong woman, you are finished. And when the right one catches you with the wrong one, you are completely finished!”
The standing ovation that followed lasted for over five minutes until it was finished … completely!
Now I’m not sure if philosophers are great practitioners of paraprosdokians or whether they have even heard of them, but this figure of speech, where the second half of a sentence is so surprising or unexpected it prompts the reader or listener to re-interpret the first half, not only conveys richness and meaning but is also a delightful way of making people smile. It’s an example of wit at its best.
Here are a few illustrations that would surely win the approval of Mr Balgobin:
“The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on the list.”; “If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.”; “War does not determine who is right, only who is left.”; “We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.”; “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.”; “A clear conscience is usually a sign of bad memory.”; “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.”; “Money can’t buy happiness but it certainly makes misery a lot easier to live with.”
Now those were pretty straightforward. Here are a few where the twist takes a little longer but the impact is just as effective:
“The evening news is where they begin with ‘Good Evening’ and then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.”; “I asked God for a bike but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness instead.”; “Hospitality is making your guests feel as if they are at home particularly when you wish they actually were.”; “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”; “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
However, I wonder what Wittgenstein, Russell or, even, Balgobin would have made of the following Punjabi definitions of ordinary English words and phrases. Perhaps that’s the point at which linguistic philosophers, used to teasing out difficult meanings, would have thrown their hands up in horror. Have a go yourself.
“Bacteria = back door to cafeteria”; “Caesarean section = a neighbourhood in Rome”; “Cat scan = searching for kitty”; “Terminal illness = getting sick at the airport”; “Labour pain = getting hurt at work”; “Nitrates = rates of pay for working at night.”
I’d say Punjab 1, philosophy 0!
Views expressed by the author are personal