Episode 7Illiterate Impressions & Speech Disfluencies
00:00 / 19:09

Details and Transcript

References

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Transcript

To my dazzling family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the seventh episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Remember that I will hold another giveaway on the 10th and final episode of the season, so stay tuned for that.

 

Okay. Today’s episode dives into an expression you’ve heard numerous times, and often questions our own personal biases and global stereotypes.

 

Let me set the scene: it’s 2017 on a cold autumn night. It’s just hit midnight. Normal people would be at home either sleeping or at least trying to sleep, with the television on or slowly closing their eyes to a good bedtime story.

 

The latter, you actually want to do. But you’re not normal people. No no no. You, are at your local bookstore, at midnight, with a lot of woman aged 18-45 in peacoats and cozy artisan scarves. Did I mention that it was midnight?

 

You are in line for the opening release of the most anticipated novel of the year. Brighter: 50 Hues of White as told by a Christian. Written by I. S. Henry, the story is about the erotic relationship between a college student and a business magnate, but criticized from the perspective of a Christian who finds this all too lewd and obscene. They are scolded for not practicing abstinence.

 

You arrived 30 minutes early but was still beat by what seems like a countless amount of other super-fans. But you’re not worried, they must have enough copies for everyone, right?

 

You look through the bookstore window and see rows upon rows of books. Though, none of them compare to the 5th instalment of this mega franchise. And that cover, oh my god, right?! The bareness of the Christian from one of the college’s photoshoots, the mysteriousness of covering half their face. The font… Almost like 3D blocks jumping right off the book with the word BRIGHTER hitting you smack in the cornea. And the red underline representing the student’s favourite shade of lipstick, yet also the blessed wine of the Lord’s Son’s sacrificial blood. It just tingles the spine in all the right places.

 

“Helloooooooo super-fans,” says the bookkeep, “thank you for coming to the release for the newest 50 Hues of White. We thank you for your patience. We will be letting people in now. One copy per customer please, and no shoving! We should have copies for everyone.”

 

There’s a loud cheer from the audience and honks from husbands and boyfriends waiting in their cars parked along the side of the street. The line begins to move. Slowly, they let the first 50 women inside and halt the line.

 

“Just to keep the store from overcrowding, we’re going to wait until they’ve completed their purchase. I would like to take this moment to remind you that we are also releasing another book at the same time, written by the infamous Jim Andsick titled 1894. The story is about government control, sacrificing civil liberties and the effect of mass surveillance on the general public. Really makes you reflect on how lucky we are and that we should strive to ensure that we are not…”

 

“Boooooooo!” said the crowd of superfans.

 

“oooooo!” you continue. Always someone in a group that does it just a second too long.

 

Once the store started looking a bit empty again, the bookkeep let the next group through. Though, they stopped just as you got to the front of the line.

 

“Oh c’mon!” you say.

 

“Sorry, store policy. Perhaps you’d like to look at the other book while you’re in line. Here’s a copy for purchase in case you’re interested.”

 

The bookkeep hands you the copy of 1894. The cover is so… dull. First of all, the entire backdrop is an olive green. Olive?! And then there’s this plain white cursive font, probably a Brush Script or expanded variant of Tratello. And it’s just the title, nothing else. Actually, it’s the title twice! Both in word form on the front, and in numeric form in the back. And don’t get you started on the “a novel” written at the bottom. What, they had to tell you that this book was, in fact, a -novel-?

 

“Ew,” you say under your breath.

 

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” says the bookkeep, “I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.”

 

“Pff, yeah right, what’s this gonna have, some crazy room where the government forces people to confront their greatest nightmare in order to betray the love of their life?”

 

“Ummmm,” says the bookkeep. He turns to his employee who gives him the sign. “Unfortunately everyone, that’s all the copies we have for tonight. Please come by tomorrow night as we should be receiving our next shipment.”

 

With groans from the women behind you, the bookkeep passes the last customer exiting the store and closes down.

 

You start to walk home and forget that you still had the other book. You turn back, but they have already closed the window blinds, and so you decide to come back tomorrow with the copy. You open the book to the first chapter and your eyes are immediately caught by the sentence in all caps, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” You’re hooked.

 

This is exactly how I got the copy of my favourite book, 1984 by George Orwell. Except I didn’t get it from my local bookkeep, and I didn’t get it at midnight while waiting in line for another book. I just got it normally. But the expression they used is heard time and time again when one should be more considerate. But how did we come to doubt our first impressions over our search for the next best read?

 

What is the origin of the expression, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”.

 

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Most of this information was obtained from many articles that provide various origin stories to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

 

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a common metaphorical phrase used when judging the worth or value of something based on its outward appearance. It’s one of those expressions that almost has a mystic imagery about it, like the phrases “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” or “every cloud has a silver lining”. Don’t worry, I’ll get to these phenomenal phrases in some other episodes. But these metaphors invoke real world things, books, eyes, clouds, to teach us, a lesson. In this case, not to go with your first impressions, and perhaps give whatever it may be, a chance to change them.

 

But it’s also more than that. It questions our own perspective and our worldview. We all have personal biases that have engraved themselves in our minds. Consciously or unconsciously. And if unconsciously, could we be even aware of what they all are? These biases, stereotypes, pre-judgemental notions of something or someone by vision alone.

 

The phrase has certainly found its way into our culture. Hell, it’s even got it’s own video challenge, in which people pretend to cut their hair and, with a surprising turn of events, remove the scissors from their hands and ask “Did you really think I was gonna cut my hair? Never judge a book by its cover.”

 

Its lesson has also made its way into anti-bullying advocacy. A video by the martial-artist Gabriella Corvina shows the life of a quiet student in a high-school like setting, just minding her own business. Pushing the exaggerated tropes in this video aside, bullies are startled that the victim is actually a skilled fighter. Though watching this, I couldn’t help to stop and think, “Of course the Asian knows martial arts.”

 

But I digressed. The most common origin story to this metaphor is provided by this grammar-check company (by the way, it must be obsolete in today’s modern day) called Ginger Software. They attribute its popularization to a murder mystery novel published in 1946 titled Murder in the Glass Room, by Edwin Rolfe and Lester Fuller. However, they state that “the phrase is attributed to a 1944 edition of the African Journal of American Speech in the form of -You can’t judge a book by its binding”. Different than the cover, but still holds the same visual lesson.

 

Other sources oppose this origin. Bloomsbury International and knowyourphrase.com credit an old Ohio newspaper called the Piqua Democrat. An article published in 1867 stated the following: “Don’t judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants”. Searching their archives, I was not able to find the actual newspaper clipping, however since it’s been validated by two independent sources, let’s just go with it.

 

But the earliest origin that I could find was from, coincidentally, yet another book titled The Mill and the Floss by George Eliot. Now George Eliot was actually the pen name for Mary Ann Evans, an English novelist and poet who wrote during the Victorian Era, an era known for its movement from rationalism to romanticism regarding art and intellect. In the story, one of the characters named Mr. Tulliver explains how he came to own a controversial book, The History of the Devil by Daniel Dafoe, a real literary work listed in the Index Liborum Prohibitorum of authors and works banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Mr. Tulliver says the following:

 

“Why, it’s one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale. They was all bound alike — it’s a good binding, you see, —and I thought they’d be all good books. […] but they’ve all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o’ one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn’t judge by the’ outside. This is a puzzlin’ world.”

 

 

 

My 19th century english accent everyone. A long windy passage in which I did have to shorten, but the idea of not judging a book by the outside, and assuming its the same as the other books he purchased, led Mr. Tulliver to possess this polarizing book. A book the other character Mr. Riley advises to “put by and read some prettier book”.

 

And that, seems to be the most credible origin story to the metaphor “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” An statement actually first used literally, and has become a popular phrase to question our initial judgment of things and even people.

 

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For the science portion of this episode, I would like to speak about another very recent article published in 2018 in Nautilus titled: “Your speech is packed with misunderstood, unconscious messages”. Let me tell you, if you don’t have the Pocket app, you’re missing out. Links to the article and the app will be in the description.

 

I liked this article as it expands on the presentation skills I’ve mentioned in Episode 5 of this podcast, with reference to actual studies. Whether you’re in science, or any sort of professional discipline that requires you give a presentation (which is a vast majority of careers), you would certainly find this relevant.

 

The article itself was written by Dr. Julie Sedivy, a writer and language scientist. She has taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary, and has wrote numerous books regarding, among other things, the language in advertising and the growing field of psycholinguistics. 

 

The article starts with setting the scene and first introduces uhs, and ums. In linguistics, they are defined by many terms like fillers, filled pauses, hesitation markers and planners. They are apparently meaningless words, phrases or sounds that mark a pause or hesitation in speech. The usage for these words is termed our “disfluencies”. I hate them menacingly, but yet I always struggle to control those utterances. The “uh” in particular is something I find I cannot seem to stop myself from saying, despite the countless practice I have in my education, work experience and just everyday speech.

 

And I’m sure I’m not alone. When Justin Trudeau was elected the next Prime Minister back in 2015, he certainly infuriated both opponents and supports alike with the amount of disfluencies   in his speeches. For those interested, there is a humorous video of Mr. Trudeau’s response to a question about the Fort McMurray wildfires, in which the poster counts “50 ums in just over 1 minute”. That’s more than 1 disfluency every 2 seconds. Certainly a distracting rate. There’s even a National Post article in which someone actually counted how many fillers he uses in particular interviews, and compares that to other leaders like Stephen Harper and Barack Obama.

 

They are given the connotation that the speaker is “nervous, ignorant and sloppy”, even lacking in knowledge. But why are we inclined to utter sounds when silence is both better and easier?

 

In fact, the author states that they are “an organic feature of speech”. They arise because speakers don’t pre-plan their dialogue, at least if its a candid response anyway. Otherwise, you would have large pauses in-between each sentence (though, Obama kind of does that). Speakers are talking and thinking at the same time, traversing through sentence structure and coming to the end just like their listeners are at the same time. An “um” or “uh” is our brains buffering a speech task, and it happens so often in public because people are trying not to misspeak.

 

That’s not all. There are differences in why we utter uhs and ums as well. One 2007 study determined that the filler “uh” signalled listeners of an short delay in upcoming speech while the filler “um” signalled listeners of a longer delay. Think about that next time you try and think about what you are trying to say. 

 

Not only that, another 2007 study determined that the words preceded by a disfluency were actually more likely to be remembered. I say that lightly, however, because, um, if you want to hammer home a statement, uh, I would not recommend to use fillers. Rather, if you want listeners to remember a word, than I would suggest to precede with an uh, penguin.

 

There’s also no relationship between the disfluencies and the speaker’s lack of knowledge. A study cited in the article showed that experienced physicians used more fillers compared to residents in training when speaking through a diagnosis. Perhaps because they created more complex sentences, or as suggested, they were sifting through larger bodies of knowledge in their memory. Moreover, subject matter and breadth of vocabulary do matter. In a study done at Columbia University, science lecturers used fillers 4-times less than humanities lecturers, or in other words, less fillers are used in fields where the topics are defined compared to topics that are more abstract and open to word choice.

 

Why are we so attentive to them? The author paraphrases what’s stated in the linguist Michael Erard’s Book Um… by stating, “the aversion to disfluencies may well have arisen from speaker’s horror at hearing their own recorded voices”. Again, disfluencies are natural, and have even been considered to be incorporated in artificial speech.

 

In my opinion, I truly don’t believe that there is an intellectual flaw in using fillers. And perhaps there are actual benefits to destigmatize disfluencies. But should we stop to rid them in public speaking? It would be as if using the same word over and over in a dialogue, something we all know is noticeable, which detracts from our listener’s attention. Like, using the word like every, like, 1-5 words. Like, how annoying.

 

Communication is an art. An art that can be practiced. An art that includes mastery in both vocal and silent communication. The fact that many like myself are incapable of dwelling within silence, for even a unnoticeable moment, by using a meaningless sound seems absurd. But, maybe um, I’m like, uh, ruminating too much.

 

Just think about it.

 

I think the article is a great read and will certainly be linked in the description.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw for a really awesome custom prize on my 10th episode. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

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