Tag Archives: language

Why the Words for ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ Sound So Similar in So Many Languages – The Atlantic

Why the Words for ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ Sound So Similar in So Many Languages – The Atlantic

Is there anything inherently “doggy” about the word “dog”? Obviously not—to the French, a dog is a chien, to Russians a sobaka, to Mandarin Chinese-speakers a gǒu. These words have nothing in common, and none seem any more connected to the canine essence than any other. One runs up against that wall with pretty much any word.

Except some. The word for “mother” seems often either to be mama or have a nasal sound similar to m, like nana. The word for “father” seems often either to be papa or have a sound similar to p, like b, in it—such that you get something like baba. The word for “dad” may also have either d or t, which is a variation on saying d, just as p is on b. People say mama or nana, and then papa, baba, dada, or tata, worldwide.

Anyone who happens to know their way around a lot of languages can barely help noticing this eerie similarity. But when it comes to European languages closely related to English, like the Romance and Germanic ones, this isn’t so surprising. After all, these languages are children of what was once one language, which linguists call Proto-Indo-European and was likely spoken on the steppes of what is now Ukraine several millennia ago. So if French has maman andpapa, and Italian has mamma and babbo, and Norwegian has mamma and papa, then maybe that’s just a family matter.

But when we’re talking several millennia, even closely related languages have a way of morphing beyond recognition. For example, Welsh is also a child of that language from Ukraine, but neither French nor English has managed to produce words like that town name—Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—that the newscaster Liam Dutton recently became a viral sensation for pronouncing properly. For a member of the same linguistic family, Welsh has struck out pretty far on its own. Yet “mother” and “father” in Welsh are mam and tad.

Did Welsh pick this up from the English spoken amidst it in Great Britain? Perhaps—but the facts are the same with languages English is spoken much less “amidst.” In Africa, Swahili has mama and baba. In the Philippines, Tagalog hasnanay and tatay. Fijian has nana and tata. Mandarin, so intimidatingly different from English to the learner, soothes unexpectedly in offering up mama and baba. Chechen in the Caucasus? Naana and daa. Native American languages? Eskimo has anana and ataata; Koasati, spoken in Louisiana and Texas, turns out to havemamma and taata; down further in El Salvador, Pipil has naan and tatah.

It’s tempting to imagine this means that the first humans called their parentsmama and dada, and that those two warm, hearty words have survived the slings and arrows of human history to remain in use today. But the notion is too good to be true. Over time in language, sounds smush along their way to becoming new ones, and even the meanings people assign to a word drift all over the place.

Take that language in Ukraine that later became most of the languages of Europe. By comparing today’s languages and tracing backward, we can determine what a lot of the words in that Ukrainian language were, just as we can look at all of today’s mammals and the fossils of their ancestors and know that the first mammal was a rodent-like critter with hair that gave birth to live young. In Proto-Indo-European, the word mregh meant “short.” The Greeks’ version of that word came to refer to the upper arm, which is short, while in Latin it referred to a pastry that looked like crossed arms; the term then passed into French referring not to arms but shoulder straps. All of those words seeped into English later, such that what started as a word meaning “short” became “brachial” (from Greek), “pretzel” (the crossed arms, from Latin), and “bra” (“shoulder strap” became brassiere). The most direct descendant of mregh in English is “merry,” of all things. That which is short is often sweet, such that the word came to mean “short and sweet” and, eventually, just sweet—merry, that is.

Certainly, then, words like mama and dada wouldn’t necessarily stay the same, or even close to the same, in languages around the world and over tens of thousands of years. So what happened?


The answer lies with babies and how they start to talk. The pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson figured it out. If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals.

Babies “speaking” in this way are just playing. But adults don’t hear them that way. A baby says “mama” and it sounds as if he’s addressing someone—and the person he’s most likely addressing so early on is his mother. The mother takes “mama” as meaning her, and in speaking to her child refers to herself as “mama.” Voilà: a word mama that “means” mother. That would have happened with the first humans—but more to the point, it has happened with baby humans worldwide, whatever language they are speaking. That means that even as the first language was becoming countless others, this “mama mistake” was recreating “mama” as the word for “Mom,” whatever was going on with words like mregh.


Papa and dada happened for a similar pan-human reason. After babies begin making m with their lips, they pick up making a sound that involves a little more than just putting their lips together—namely, putting them together, holding them that way for a second, and then blowing out a puff of air. That’s p—or, depending on your mood, b. Alternatively, babies also start playing with their mouths a little further back from the lips—on that ridge behind the upper teeth that we burn inconveniently by sipping soup when it’s too hot. That’s where we make a t or a d. The order in which babies learn to make sounds explains why the next closest usual caretaker to mom is so often called papa or baba (or tata ordada).

There’s a similarly mundane explanation for another uncanny pattern among certain words. The linguist Johanna Nichols has noted that in Europe and much of northern Asia, the pronouns for “I” and “you” start with m and t—or something pronounced like t on that burnable ridge in the mouth, s—too often for it to be an accident. English-speakers are familiar with French’s moi and toi, or Spanish’s meand tu. It goes further, with Russian’s menja and tebja, Finnish’s minä and sinä, and even to Eurasian languages further east, like a language of Siberia called Yukaghir that uses met and tet.

Nichols has proposed that the reason a language like Yukaghir’s pronouns for Iand you look so much like the mama/tata alternation—as well as why French hasmoi and toi and English once had me and thou—is because even as these languages have changed over time, the sounds of the words for I and you have been influenced by the way mama and tata differ. The m sound is used for what is closest—mama for Mommy and “me” for the self. The t sound—often learned just after m—is for what’s just one step removed from the closest: Daddy hovering just over there, which we can understand would feel like “you” rather than “(Mommy and) me.”

This time, however, it isn’t the whole world—it’s just a part of Eurasia where this distinction happens to have shaped how pronouns sound. Elsewhere, words for “me” and “you” are, for example, Mandarin’s and or Indonesian’s saya andanda.


Otherwise, if we want to know why a word sounds the way it does, there are only glimmers. Indeed, in English, “glimmer” is one of many words starting with gl– that refer to light-oriented things—“glow,” “glare,” “glitter,” “gleam,” “glance,” “glower.” It’s also been shown that humans tend to associate tight sounds like eewith smallness and fleetness. The anthropologist Brent Berlin did a neat experiment in which he played 600 students two words from an obscure language of the Amazon, Huambisa, and asked which one referred to a bird (little and flittery) and which referred to a fish. The words were chunchuíkit and máuts. Almost all of the students intuited that chunchuíkit, with its tweety “chui,” was the bird.


Ultimately, language is vastly more than things like “Me glimmering, Mom!” No theory will ever account for why the words in a sentence like “He couldn’t even get halfway over that wall!” are the way they are. Language is too changeable to allow us that pleasure, standing as we are at the end of a possibly 150,000-year timeline since human speech began.




The Economist explains: Why so many Koreans are called Kim | The Economist

The Economist explains: Why so many Koreans are called Kim | The Economist.

A SOUTH KOREAN saying claims that a stone thrown from the top of Mount Namsan, in the centre of the capital Seoul, is bound to hit a person with the surname Kim or Lee. One in every five South Koreans is a Kim—in a population of just over 50m. And from the current president, Park Geun-hye, to rapper PSY (born Park Jae-sang), almost one in ten is a Park. Taken together, these three surnames account for almost half of those in use in South Korea today. Neighbouring China has around 100 surnames in common usage; Japan may have as many as 280,000 distinct family names. Why is there so little diversity in Korean surnames?

Korea’s long feudal tradition offers part of the answer. As in many other parts of the world, surnames were a rarity until the late Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). They remained the privilege of royals and a few aristocrats (yangban) only. Slaves and outcasts such as butchers, shamans and prostitutes, but also artisans, traders and monks, did not have the luxury of a family name. As the local gentry grew in importance, however, Wang Geon, the founding king of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), tried to mollify it by granting surnames as a way to distinguish faithful subjects and government officials. The gwageo, a civil-service examination that became an avenue for social advancement and royal preferment, required all those who sat it to register a surname. Thus elite households adopted one. It became increasingly common for successful merchants too to take on a last name. They could purchase an elite genealogy by physically buying a genealogical book (jokbo)—perhaps that of a bankrupt yangban—and using his surname. By the late 18th century, forgery of such records was rampant. Many families fiddled with theirs: when, for example, a bloodline came to an end, a non-relative could be written into a genealogical book in return for payment. The stranger, in turn, acquired a noble surname.


As family names such as Lee and Kim were among those used by royalty in ancient Korea, they were preferred by provincial elites and, later, commoners when plumping for a last name. This small pool of names originated from China, adopted by the Korean court and its nobility in the 7th century in emulation of noble-sounding Chinese surnames. (Many Korean surnames are formed from a single Chinese character.) So, to distinguish one’s lineage from those of others with the same surname, the place of origin of a given clan (bongwan) was often tagged onto the name. Kims have around 300 distinct regional origins, such as the Gyeongju Kim and Gimhae Kim clans (though the origin often goes unidentified except on official documents). The limited pot of names meant that no one was quite sure who was a blood relation; so, in the late Joseon period, the king enforced a ban on marriages between people with identical bongwan (a restriction that was only lifted in 1997). In 1894 the abolition of Korea’s class-based system allowed commoners to adopt a surname too: those on lower social rungs often adopted the name of their master or landlord, or simply took one in common usage. In 1909 a new census-registration law was passed, requiring all Koreans to register a surname.

Today clan origins, once deemed an important marker of a person’s heritage and status, no longer bear the same relevance to Koreans. Yet the number of new Park, Kim and Lee clans is in fact growing: more foreign nationals, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipinos, are becoming naturalised Korean citizens, and their most popular picks for a local surname are Kim, Lee, Park and Choi, according to government figures; registering, for example, the Mongol Kim clan, or the Taeguk (of Thailand) Park clan. The popularity of these three names looks set to continue.

The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect | Gadget Lab | WIRED

The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect | Gadget Lab | WIRED.

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to call autocorrect the overlooked underwriter of our era of mobile prolixity. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to compose windy love letters from stadium bleachers, write novels on subway commutes, or dash off breakup texts while in line at the post office. Without it, we probably couldn’t even have phones that look anything like the ingots we tickle—the whole notion of touchscreen typing, where our podgy physical fingers are expected to land with precision on tiny virtual keys, is viable only when we have some serious software to tidy up after us. Because we know autocorrect is there as brace and cushion, we’re free to write with increased abandon, at times and in places where writing would otherwise be impossible. Thanks to autocorrect, the gap between whim and word is narrower than it’s ever been, and our world is awash in easily rendered thought.


I find him in a drably pastel conference room at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Dean Hachamovitch—inventor on the patent for autocorrect and the closest thing it has to an individual creator—reaches across the table to introduce himself.


Hachamovitch, now a vice president at Microsoft and head of data science for the entire corporation, is a likable and modest man. He freely concedes that he types teh as much as anyone. (Almost certainly he does not often type hte. As researchers have discovered, initial-letter transposition is a much rarer error.)


The notion of autocorrect was born when Hachamovitch began thinking about a functionality that already existed in Word. Thanks to Charles Simonyi, the longtime Microsoft executive widely recognized as the father of graphical word processing, Word had a “glossary” that could be used as a sort of auto-expander. You could set up a string of words—like insert logo—which, when typed and followed by a press of the F3 button, would get replaced by a JPEG of your company’s logo. Hachamovitch realized that this glossary could be used far more aggressively to correct common mistakes. He drew up a little code that would allow you to press the left arrow and F3 at any time and immediately replace teh with the. His aha moment came when he realized that, because English words are space-delimited, the space bar itself could trigger the replacement, to make correction … automatic! Hachamovitch drew up a list of common errors, and over the next years he and his team went on to solve many of the thorniest. Seperate would automatically change to separate. Accidental cap locks would adjust immediately (making dEAR grEG into Dear Greg). One Microsoft manager dubbed them the Department of Stupid PC Tricks.


One day Hachamovitch went into his boss’s machine and changed the autocorrect dictionary so that any time he typed Dean it was automatically changed to the name of his coworker Mike, and vice versa. (His boss kept both his computer and office locked after that.) Children were even quicker to grasp the comedic ramifications of the new tool. After Hachamovitch went to speak to his daughter’s third-grade class, he got emails from parents that read along the lines of “Thank you for coming to talk to my daughter’s class, but whenever I try to type her name I find it automatically transforms itself into ‘The pretty princess.’”


On idiom, some of its calls seemed fairly clear-cut: gorilla warfare became guerrilla warfare, for example, even though a wildlife biologist might find that an inconvenient assumption. But some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn’t want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check’s most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.”


One day Vignola sent Bill Gates an email. (Thorpe couldn’t recall who Bill Vignola was or what he did.) Whenever Bill Vignola typed his own name in MS Word, the email to Gates explained, it was automatically changed to Bill Vaginal. Presumably Vignola caught this sometimes, but not always, and no doubt this serious man was sad to come across like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. His email made it down the chain of command to Thorpe. And Bill Vaginal wasn’t the only complainant: As Thorpe recalls, Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs.

Thorpe went through the dictionary and took out all the words marked as “vulgar.” Then he threw in a few anatomical terms for good measure. The resulting list ran to hundreds of entries:

anally, asshole, battle-axe, battleaxe, bimbo, booger, boogers, butthead, Butthead …

With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.


Autocorrection is no longer an overqualified intern drawing up lists of directives; it’s now a vast statistical affair in which petabytes of public words are examined to decide when a usage is popular enough to become a probabilistically savvy replacement. The work of the autocorrect team has been made algorithmic and outsourced to the cloud.

A handful of factors are taken into account to weight the variables: keyboard proximity, phonetic similarity, linguistic context. But it’s essentially a big popularity contest. A Microsoft engineer showed me a slide where somebody was trying to search for the long-named Austrian action star who became governor of California. Schwarzenegger, he explained, “is about 10,000 times more popular in the world than its variants”—Shwaranegar or Scuzzynectar or what have you. Autocorrect has become an index of the most popular way to spell and order certain words.

When English spelling was first standardized, it was by the effective fiat of those who controlled the communicative means of production. Dictionaries and usage guides have always represented compromises between top-down prescriptivists—those who believe language ought to be used a certain way—and bottom-up descriptivists—those who believe, instead, that there’s no ought about it.

The emerging consensus on usage will be a matter of statistical arbitration, between the way “most” people spell something and the way “some” people do. If it proceeds as it has, it’s likely to be a winner-take-all affair, as alternatives drop out. (Though Apple’s recent introduction of personalized, “contextual” autocorrect—which can distinguish between the language you use with your friends and the language you use with your boss—might complicate that process of standardization and allow us the favor of our characteristic errors.)


The possibility of linguistic communication is grounded in the fact of what some philosophers of language have called the principle of charity: The first step in a successful interpretation of an utterance is the belief that it somehow accords with the universe as we understand it. This means that we have a propensity to take a sort of ownership over even our errors, hoping for the possibility of meaning in even the most perverse string of letters. We feel honored to have a companion like autocorrect who trusts that, despite surface clumsiness or nonsense, inside us always smiles an articulate truth.


Today the influence of autocorrect is everywhere: A commenter on the Language Log blog recently mentioned hearing of an entire dialect in Asia based on phone cupertinos, where teens used the first suggestion from autocomplete instead of their chosen word, thus creating a slang that others couldn’t decode. (It’s similar to the Anglophone teenagers who, in a previous texting era, claimed to have replaced the term of approval cool with that of book because of happenstance T9 input priority.) Surrealists once encouraged the practice of écriture automatique, or automatic writing, in order to reveal the peculiar longings of the unconscious. The crackpot suggestions of autocorrect have become our own form of automatic writing—but what they reveal are the peculiar statistics of a world id.

Why the World Cup always reminds me that the yellow card is a brilliant object.: Design Observer

Why the World Cup always reminds me that the yellow card is a brilliant object.: Design Observer.

As objects go, it doesn’t look like much. It’s, you know, a yellow card. But when theatrically brandished by an official, almost literally in the face of a player who has done something uncool, it has wild power. It sets off a stadium-full of whistling, and cartoonish arm-flailing from the carded player and his colleagues. A yellow card has real consequences: Possession, a free kick, and the possibility that if the carded competitor blunders again he’ll leave his team understaffed for this match, and will sit out the next.

It strikes me as more interesting than the other penalty card, the red. That one results in instant ejection, in response to some plainly egregious act. Its presentation is memorable, of course. But the yellow card is both more ambiguous and more humane. It’s a warning: There’s trouble; but it could be worse.

According an item on FIFA’s site, the penalty-card notion was invented by an official named Ken Aston, in the wake of a 1966 World Cup quarterfinal match between England and Argentina. Apparently there was some controversy about whether the referee had clearly communicated penalty warnings leveled against two English players:

It started a train of thought in Aston’s head too. He began to think about ways to avoid such problems in the future. “As I drove down Kensington High Street, the traffic light turned red. I thought, ‘Yellow, take it easy; red, stop, you’re off’.”

Yellow and red penalty cards became part of the World Cup in 1970, and are of course now a routine element of soccer and (according to Wikipedia, anyway) a number of other sports.

The cards are a such a brilliant solution to the problem of making sure a penalty has been adequately signaled — they transcend language; they’re clear not just to everyone on the field, but in the stadium, or watching on a screen — that it’s hard to imagine the game without them.

Moreover (and this is the line of thought that idle World Cup moments lead me to every four years), I semi-seriously wish we could port the card system into daily life. Imagine a yellow card as a warning to the shop employee whose insolence is getting close to inspiring a boycott; to the dinner companion whose habit of checking his phone is on the verge of becoming a friendship-ender; to the aggressive tailgater who is just about to inspire a road-rage incident.

What is the ‘Oxford comma’? – Oxford Dictionaries (US)

What is the ‘Oxford comma’? – Oxford Dictionaries (US).

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

The Oxford comma is also known as the ‘serial comma’.

Urban Dictionary: innit

Urban Dictionary: innit.

  • A colloquial tag question, used in the same context of the french ‘n’est-ce pas?’.
  • It is used by youths and that of chav elders to determine whether their interlocutor is acknowledging they are speaking.
  • also used as a ‘blend’ (two words made as one e.g. internet) of the word ‘isn’t’ (made up of the words verb. ‘is’ and the archeic adverb. ‘not’) and the colloquial noun ‘it’.
  • often used as an instinctual mating call of the chav breed.
“good, innit?”
“sound man innit?”
“innit bab”

If everyone’s an idiot, guess who’s a jerk? – Eric Schwitzgebel – Aeon

If everyone’s an idiot, guess who’s a jerk? – Eric Schwitzgebel – Aeon.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. Imagine the nature-documentary voice-over: ‘Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian restaurant situation…’ And second – well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet.

As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word ‘jerk’ can refer to two different types of person (I set aside sexual uses of the term, as well as more purely physical senses). The older use of ‘jerk’ designates a kind of chump or an ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one.


The jerk-as-fool usage seems to have begun as a derisive reference to the unsophisticated people of a ‘jerkwater town’: that is, a town not rating a full-scale train station, requiring the boiler man to pull on a chain to water his engine. The term expresses the travelling troupe’s disdain. Over time, however, ‘jerk’ shifted from being primarily a class-based insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a term of moral condemnation. Such linguistic drift from class-based contempt to moral deprecation is a common pattern across languages, as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). (In English, consider ‘rude’, ‘villain’, ‘ignoble’.) And it is the immoral jerk who concerns me here.

Why, you might be wondering, should a philosopher make it his business to analyse colloquial terms of abuse? Doesn’t Urban Dictionary cover that kind of thing quite adequately? Shouldn’t I confine myself to truth, or beauty, or knowledge, or why there is something rather than nothing (to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser answered: ‘If there was nothing you’d still be complaining’)? I am, in fact, interested in all those topics. And yet I suspect there’s a folk wisdom in the term ‘jerk’ that points toward something morally important. I want to extract that morally important thing, to isolate the core phenomenon towards which I think the word is groping. Precedents for this type of work include the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’ (2005) and, closer to my target, the Irvine philosopher Aaron James’s book Assholes (2012). Our taste in vulgarity reveals our values.

I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of ‘jerk’ has changed into a type of moral ignorance.

Some related traits are already well-known in psychology and philosophy – the ‘dark triad’ of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, and James’s conception of the asshole, already mentioned. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The asshole, James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. That is one important dimension of jerkitude, but not the whole story. The callous psychopath, though cousin to the jerk, has an impulsivity and love of risk-taking that need be no part of the jerk’s character. Neither does the jerk have to be as thoroughly self-involved as the narcissist or as self-consciously cynical as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common enough jerkish attributes.


The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. The sweetheart sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, stops to help the person who dropped her papers, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right.

The moral and emotional failure of the jerk is obvious. The intellectual failure is obvious, too: no one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude – a fact about which, as I will explain shortly, the all-out jerk is inevitably ignorant. Which brings me to the other great benefit of a theory of jerks: it might help you figure out if you yourself are one.


With Vazire’s model of self-knowledge in mind, I conjecture a correlation of approximately zero between how one would rate oneself in relative jerkitude and one’s actual true jerkitude. The term is morally loaded, and rationalisation is so tempting and easy! Why did you just treat that cashier so harshly? Well, she deserved it – and anyway, I’ve been having a rough day. Why did you just cut into that line of cars at the last minute, not waiting your turn to exit? Well, that’s just good tactical driving – and anyway, I’m in a hurry! Why did you seem to relish failing that student for submitting her essay an hour late? Well, the rules were clearly stated; it’s only fair to the students who worked hard to submit their essays on time – and that was a grimace not a smile.

Since the most effective way to learn about defects in one’s character is to listen to frank feedback from people whose opinions you respect, the jerk faces special obstacles on the road to self-knowledge, beyond even what Vazire’s model would lead us to expect.


Still, it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. ‘So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,’ he might say. Provided this label carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk’s moral self-ignorance remains. Part of what it is to fail to appreciate the perspectives of others is to fail to see your jerkishly dismissive attitude toward their ideas and concerns as inappropriate.


All normal jerks distribute their jerkishness mostly down the social hierarchy, and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road – these are the unfortunates who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognises that the perspectives of those above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration. Often, indeed, he feels sincere respect for his higher-ups. Perhaps respectful feelings are too deeply written in our natures to disappear entirely. Perhaps the jerk retains a vestigial kind of concern specifically for those whom it would benefit him, directly or indirectly, to win over. He is at least concerned enough about their opinion of him to display tactical respect while in their field of view. However it comes about, the classic jerk kisses up and kicks down. The company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it’s no great mystery among the secretaries.

Because the jerk tends to disregard the perspectives of those below him in the hierarchy, he often has little idea how he appears to them. This leads to hypocrisies. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student’s or secretary’s document, while producing a torrent of errors himself; it just wouldn’t occur to him to apply the same standards to himself. He might insist on promptness, while always running late. He might freely reprimand other people, expecting them to take it with good grace, while any complaints directed against him earn his eternal enmity. Such failures of parity typify the jerk’s moral short-sightedness, flowing naturally from his disregard of others’ perspectives. These hypocrisies are immediately obvious if one genuinely imagines oneself in a subordinate’s shoes for anything other than selfish and self-rationalising ends, but this is exactly what the jerk habitually fails to do.

Embarrassment, too, becomes practically impossible for the jerk, at least in front of his underlings. Embarrassment requires us to imagine being viewed negatively by people whose perspectives we care about. As the circle of people whom the jerk is willing to regard as true peers and superiors shrinks, so does his capacity for shame – and with it a crucial entry point for moral self-knowledge.

As one climbs the social hierarchy it is also easier to become a jerk. Here’s a characteristically jerkish thought: ‘I’m important, and I’m surrounded by idiots!’ Both halves of this proposition serve to conceal the jerk’s jerkitude from himself.


As you ascend the hierarchy, you will find it easier to discover evidence of your relative importance (your big salary, your first-class seat) and of the relative idiocy of others (who have failed to ascend as high as you). Also, flatterers will tend to squeeze out frank, authentic critics.

This isn’t the only possible explanation for the prevalence of powerful jerks, of course. Maybe jerks are actually more likely to rise in business and academia than non-jerks – the truest sweethearts often suffer from an inability to advance their own projects over the projects of others. But I suspect the causal path runs at least as much in the other direction. Success might or might not favour the existing jerks, but I’m pretty sure it nurtures new ones.


In failing to appreciate others’ perspectives, the jerk almost inevitably fails to appreciate the full range of human goods – the value of dancing, say, or of sports, nature, pets, local cultural rituals, and indeed anything that he doesn’t care for himself. Think of the aggressively rumpled scholar who can’t bear the thought that someone would waste her time getting a manicure. Or think of the manicured socialite who can’t see the value of dedicating one’s life to dusty Latin manuscripts. Whatever he’s into, the moralising jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else.

Furthermore, mercy is near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything that everyone does falls short of perfection: one’s turn of phrase is less than perfect, one arrives a bit late, one’s clothes are tacky, one’s gesture irritable, one’s choice somewhat selfish, one’s coffee less than frugal, one’s melody trite. Practical mercy involves letting these imperfections pass forgiven or, better yet, entirely unnoticed. In contrast, the jerk appreciates neither others’ difficulties in attaining all the perfections that he attributes to himself, nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralising principle therefore comes naturally to him. (Sympathetic mercy is natural to the sweetheart.) And on the rare occasions when the jerk is merciful, his indulgence is usually ill-tuned: the flaws he forgives are exactly the one he recognises in himself or has ulterior reasons to let slide.


He needn’t care only about money and prestige. Indeed, sometimes an abstract and general concern for moral or political principles serves as a kind of substitute for genuine concern about the people in his immediate field of view, possibly leading to substantial self-sacrifice. And in social battles, the sweetheart will always have some disadvantages: the sweetheart’s talent for seeing things from his opponent’s perspective deprives him of bold self-certainty, and he is less willing to trample others for his ends. Social movements sometimes do well when led by a moralising jerk.


Instead of introspection, try listening. Ideally, you will have a few people in your life who know you intimately, have integrity, and are concerned about your character. They can frankly and lovingly hold your flaws up to the light and insist that you look at them. Give them the space to do this, and prepare to be disappointed in yourself.


To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found? In other words, how familiar was the vision of the world I described at the beginning of this essay?

If your self-rationalising defences are low enough to feel a little pang of shame at the familiarity of that vision of the world, then you probably aren’t pure diamond-grade jerk. But who is? We’re all somewhere in the middle. That’s what makes the jerk’s vision of the world so instantly recognisable. It’s our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.