Friday, August 12, 2011

True only if you don't say it about yourself

It's always bugged me, too, this thing where a person or a company takes pains to tell you what they think their virtues are:

  • I'm a classy person.
  • I'm an educated person.
  • I'm a modest person.
  • (Most any reference to "elegant" in a product description.)
  • etc.

Now John Scalzi has coined a term for this: McKean's inversion. He describes it this way:

The adjective a person says they are is frequently the thing they are not.

The name McKean's inversion originates via an indirect route. Erin McKean is a lexicographer (among her other talents) who once stated what's come to be known as McKean's Law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error." Scalzi knows McKean and says he remembers how she once observed that ...

... if someone used the word to describe themselves, it was often quite obvious that they were in fact the opposite.

Thus the inversion. And as noted, McKean's Law was already taken.

It's a little early to tell, but my sense is that this is intended to be used for instances where the person is being a bit clueless. It would therefore not work when they're simply being disingenuous, e.g., "I'm just a humble technical writer." But who knows?


lb said...

Interesting stuff.

Ah very good.

In IT of course we say that all problems can be solved by adding a layer of indirection, and McKean's Inversion is no exception.

For example, "I am what the ladies refer to as a sexy crumpet."

Since it is not my own claim, I am merely putting forward the oft repeated claim of these 'ladies' it might therefore be true.

Which it is, as I *am* a sexy crumpet by any definition.

So I must always remember to cite opinions about myself as those of anonymous commentators, rather than my own questionable biases.

cheers mike


Richard Cobbe said...

Dorothy L. Sayers had a wonderful take on this phenomenon in Unnatural Death:

Miss Climpson was one of those people who say: "I am not the kind of person who reads other people's postcards." This is clear notice to all and sundry that they are, precisely, that kind of person. They are not untruthful; the delusion is real to them. It is merely that Providence has provided them with a warning rattle, like that of the rattle-snake. After that, if you are so foolish as to leave your correspondence in their way, it is your own affair.

WordzGuy said...

No fooling, this is a tactic used often in personals ads. "My friends say that I am [something I probably am not]." Like "People often tell me that I'm a load of laughs" or "My friends say I'm not creepy at all!"

Admittedly, it's a hard problem to convey one's essential sexy crumpetness in a personals ads without resorting to either McKean's Inversion or Bambrick's Indirection Corollary of McKean's Inversion.

Hmm. Trying to remember now how I described myself in those days of yore ...

SpareSimian said...

I'd not heard of McKean's law before, and have always referred to that adage as Muphry's Law.