Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Alice Riddle

The riddle to which I allude is of course the one taken from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It's the one which goes, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" As the author himself pointed out, it was a riddle designed not to have an answer. But such riddles frustrate readers, who often read too much into any given text. I suppose the best answer is that both are covered with inky quills.

A lot of false etymology and grammar goes this way. Is it 'an uncle' or 'a nuncle'? Is it 'an (h)istorian' or 'a historian'? Does 'grammar' itself come from 'grandma' and what she taught the grandkids? Whatever it is, a raven does not rave; neither does the craven crave. The depraved has nothing to do with abstinence from pravda. And so on.

I am vastly amused by the contortions we inflict on ourselves when we try to attribute meaning where there is none, or to make a false meaning fit the facts. It is human nature, made so by the fact that neurobiology is like that and our brains are deceptive. The human heart is desperately wicked – but so is a candle when you urgently need it to catch fire. It is all a matter of being careful with your speech.

So, why is a raven like a writing desk? Follow the link I supplied above, and if you don't like those answers, come up with your own.

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