A Self-Help Taxonomy

Photo by lamentables

The bookstore has a whole section labeled "Self-Help." I wonder—do other countries have such a section in the bookstore, or even such a concept? The Oxford English Dictionary (on-line) gives the earliest citation for the term "self-help" from 1834, so certainly the concept could have spread world-wide by now. And yet to me, the term self-help seems quintessentially American, bound up with Horatio Alger and the whole "all men are created equal" thing. Surely people living in monarchical France did not believe that the difference between the king and a peasant was a mere matter of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.

In the broader sense of any book with an educational purpose, "self-help" books would be available in any country. The broader definition including also books on diet, exercise, fashion, relationships, organizational skills, etc.

But the hard-core self-help book focuses on no specific aspect of life but simply exhorts (according to whatever precepts): be better. Get more. A fairly well known example would be Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. What these people are effective at is not specified.

(Disclaimer: These are example for discussion, nothing more. I neither to endorse nor criticize.)

I have mixed feelings about the self-help industry. Surely the great majority is snake oil. As Chip Overclock says, "90% of everything I say is crap because 90% of everything is crap." And yet clearly some people are more effective than others, sometimes by huge margins. It's not unreasonable to think that "effectiveness" might be a learnable skill. So there could be that other 10% out there that actually has some value.

Besides taking a normal interest in improving my own quality of life, I have a general fascination with art or science of self-help in and of itself, with the human being's ability to remake himself or herself. There are "self-made men." There are no self-made animals. This is reflected in several of my previous blog posts.

And so I have noticed that self-help works fall along a certain spectrum—indeed most are one end of the spectrum or the other. On one end, the target audience is dysfunctional people, or at least at those with low self-esteem. These products promise to take you from pathetic to normal.

For example, there is Ed Wheat's How to Save your Marriage Alone. I haven't read the book—haven't even peeked inside. But clearly Wheat is not targeting those who feel satisfied and secure in their marriages. (By the way, if you want to guarantee yourself an interesting evening, come home and announce to your spouse that you are going to save your marriage alone).

Or consider Jackie Warner's This is Why You're Fat. Been looking for the perfect birthday gift for your wife? Ha-ha. Who buys a book with a title like this? Maybe fat people, maybe thin people, but surely no one with a healthy body image.

And then there is the elder statesman of self-help books, the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm no expert on this, but it seems to me that the twelve-step program probably considers it "success" if an alcoholic reaches the same point of sobriety where the average non-alcoholic starts out.

This is one end of the spectrum. At the other end are self-help books that promise to take one from ordinary to extraordinary. For example, consider Bill Phillips' Body for Life. Bill is a bodybuilder and marketer of dietary supplements. His big innovation was to push the sport of bodybuilding beyond a small cadre of enthusiasts to become an avocation for anyone who aspires. Body for Life is both a diet and exercise book, but the point is not to go from "fat" to "normal." Whether your preferred physique is the body-builder's type or something else, Bill doesn't want you to settle for "normal."

It would be instructive to compare Donald Asher's How to Get Any Job: Life Launch and Re-Launch for Everyone Under 30 (or How to Avoid Living in Your Parents' Basement) with Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek. Asher's book appears targeted at people who want jobs but don't have them, and probably feel a job is necessary to become a full-fledged adult—a widespread sentiment, and one I mostly agree with. The goal of Asher's book is to become "normal." Ferriss's book is mostly targeted at people with jobs, and says essentially: jobs are for "normal" suckers. Give your job up and spend your time on what you really want to do. Ferriss's book is all about leaving "normal" behind.

I point out that in not a few cases, people have managed to take themselves all the way from pathetic to extraordinary. It makes sense, in a way. Once you get in the habit of self-betterment, why stop?

Is Speaking More Important Than Listening When Learning Chinese?

Interesting post on Hacking Chinese. I have some related thoughts that I hope to post soon.

Do the Chinese Ever Have a Word for It...

My pastime of late is browsing through Herbert Giles' mammmoth 1892 dictionary of Chinese characters. (You can download it for free from Google books--search for "giles chinese dictionary".) The dictionary contains roughly 13,848 characters. It's hard to know exactly how many, as some characters are listed in more than one position (having more than one pronunciation). This is vastly more than practically  any living person , Chinese or not, is able to read. Inference: most characters in Giles' dictionary are hardly, if ever, used any more.

This raises the question of what all these obsolete characters were ever used for. I found the answer rather astonishing. To fully appreciate why, I must invoke the slightly technical concept of a morpheme.

Words are the "molecules" of language, morphemes are the "atoms." A morpheme is the minimal meaningful unit of language. A word may consist of one or several morphemes.

For example, next time you are pressed into revising your resumé or writing your wedding vows, recall the lovely English word exopthalmic. The meaning of this is "having protruding eyeballs." A foreigner might find it amusing that we have a single word for this concept, but note that the word can be analyzed by breaking it into parts:

exopthalmic = ex (outward) + opthalm (eyeball) + ic (having)

So exopthalmic is one word but three morphemes.

By contrast, our hypothetical foreigner might be even more amused by the English noun steer, meaning a male ox that has been castrated. And the meaning of the word steer cannot be analyzed by breaking into parts: ste- by itself means nothing, nor does -eer. So steer is both a single word and a single morpheme. The existence of this word is a clue to history: cattle, and castration thereof, must have played a significant role in the lives of English-speaking peoples. Castrated cattle must have been common enough that people thought of them as a thing in themselves rather than a subcategory of "ox".

Now some background on the Chinese language and script: every Chinese morpheme consists of a single syllable (not true in English--elephant, for example, is a single morpheme with three syllables). Each morpheme is written with a single character. A single Chinese word may consist of one or several syllables--written with one or several characters.

[Incidental note: the sound system for Mandarin Chinese allows for only about 1200 distinct syllables (including tone distinctions). Thus, of necessity, many of the characters in Giles' dictionary must be pronounced identically to others. In other words, many Chinese morphemes are pronounced identically to others (and in practice one relies on context to make the distinction). But even aside from this, there is plenty to be curious about.]

So one may consider the character

pronounced dié (using the Pinyin romanization rather than the older Wade-Giles system), and meaning "prominent eyes." This is roughly equivalent to the English exopthalmic but in this case China wins the funny-word contest because dié is a single morpheme, not analyzable into constituent parts--neither d nor i nor e has any relevant meaning in isolation. It makes you wonder whether people with protruding eyeballs played an especially significant role in Chinese history.

(NOTE: I'm talking here about the spoken word, which cannot be broken into meaningful units. The written character can be broken down into two meaningful parts: 目, meaning "eye" (appropriate here); and 失, probably intended as a clue to pronunciation. But that's a different story.)

So, herewith is a selection of Chinese characters, representing unitary concepts in the Chinese language. For each, I provide its definition from Giles, dictionary, along with its pronunciation written using both Pinyin and the older Wade-Giles system; and finally the index in Giles dictionary, so you can look for yourself to prove I'm not kidding.

qí/ch'i a foot with six toes (1107)

chī/ch'ih a dragon whose horns have not grown (1973)

jīng/ching a large deer, with one horn and a cow's tail (2141)

zhù/chu a horse with the near hind leg white (2615)

èr/êrh To pull the hairs out of a victim's ears, that the gods may hear the prayers offered up with the sacrifice. (3342)

觿 xī/hsi An ivory spike, worn at the girdle and used for loosening knots. (4171)

bá/pa the demon of drought, variously depicted as a one-eyed dwarf and a strange bird. (8530)

yú/yü fields in the 3rd year of cultivation (13613)

tuō/t'o offspring of an ass and a cow (11670)

cuī/ts'ui A piece of sackcloth, 6 inches by four, worn on the breast as mourning (11936)

bá/pa the demon of drought, variously depicted as a one-eyed dwarf and a strange bird. (8530)

yù/yü clouds of three colors (13683)

yǔ/yü An instrument used to give the signal for a band of music to stop, shaped like a wooden. tiger, with 27 teeth along its back. (13625)

jiān/chien A fabulous bird with one eye and one wing, so that a pair must unite to fly. (1637)

jiān/chien A Chinese Methusaleh, known as 籛鏗 Chien K'êng. He is said to have reached the age of 767 and then to have vanished.(1591)

yí/i A hairy marine animal, which is said to climb trees and bears some resemblance to the human form. (5435)