Cryptic Poetry: why bother?

Words exist to communicate. Each one is a dense dollop of meaning flung from my mind to yours. That is the purpose of words. Why then do people write words without meaning? I’m talking here about a certain species of bad poetry – cryptic poetry. Words that are so indecipherable they communicate nothing. They fail as words. Why write them?

Dew of mist

All the butterflies are dead

This year

Inject the soul with


Was that a poem? I created it by stringing random words together with a little syntactic glue. It has no purpose. It has no meaning. It is an empty shell of hollow words. This poem has meaning in the same way clouds have faces.  Yet the internet is awash in this sort of cryptic meaningless poetry.

Why? A lack of skill? Some people out there do seem to think that merely putting words

on different


makes it

a poem.

It doesn’t.

Slap on top a belief that poetry must be about obscure personal emotions and out pops cryptically bad poetry. It’s like listening to someone talk in their sleep. We can’t join their dreams.

My heart aches

The cinnamon bun

You know.

Another possibility is a neurological problem. Serious. It’s called word salad. It’s a symptom of dementia, schizophrenia, and brain injury.

Wall speaks

Windy hot mess, cloud blues;

A shelf lay fuschia,

In worlds with pencils.

I hope this is rather rare cause of bad poetry, but one can’t escape the resemblance.

However, incompetence and injury aside, to truly understand the popularity of cryptically bad poetry, I’m sorry to say this, we’re going to have to ask Deepak Chopra. Yes. Deepak Chopra. To be more precise, a random word generator with the uncanny ability to mimic a tweet by Deepak Chopra.

Can you guess which of these is the real Deepak, and which is the random Deepak machine? (The answers are at the end.)

“Reality is the consciousness that projects the illusion.”

“Formless Being is ultimate reality Liberation of Consciousness from Identification with Form through Non-reactivity.”

“Your consciousness is reborn in universal possibilities.”

“Self-power is the womb of total acceptance of abstract beauty.”

The Deepak machine was used in a 2015 study by psychologists from the University of Waterloo. It won science’s second highest honor after the Noble prizes (and all those other prizes) – the Ignoble Prize. The topic? It was titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”

Bullshit. Pseudo-profound bullshit. That, I believe, is what we are dealing with here.

They define pseudo-profound bullshit as “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” And they found that people will frequently rate a meaningless randomly generated buzzword sentence as profound. People buy bullshit.

Seeing how easy it is to write cryptically bad poetry by stringing together random words, I would say that it counts as pseudo-profound bullshit. It gives the impression of deep meaning without having any actual deep meaning.

So why is there so much bullshit poetry?

From the poet’s point of view bullshit emanates out of a desire to impress, to seem profound, to get clicks on the like button. As people will happily slurp up bullshit, you’ll seldom be challenged on the fact that all your poetry is empty nonsense. That, or you’re a random word generator.

Oh, spring forth

flying quantum space time of

my soul!

From the readers point of view? We expect poetry to be profound, we are accustomed to it being difficult, and we intend to read it intuitively – souls wide open.  We put ourselves in the optimal bullshit-absorption state. The expectation creates gullibility. The lack of confidence makes us confuse “I don’t get it” with “This is profound.” And the intuitiveness disarms our analytical firewalls. The bullshit slides right on down.

Ah, zeitgeist

dust motes

dancing on the minds

of this is bullshit!


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Pennycook et al. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6. Here.

The Deepak tweet generator,

(ANSWER: For the Deepak quotes, the first two are from Deepak’s twitter, the second two are randomly generated. How well did you do?)

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Yeah Nah, Nah Yeah!

Yes no, no yes. Is this the death of the English language? This makes no sense.

“Yeah, no this does make sense!”

“Nah, yeah I get it.”

“Yeeeah, no, I mean… don’t yes and no cancel out?”

“Um…yeah, nah.”

How do we explain such flat out contradictory language? Plenty of ideas are out there:

  • The yes acknowledges the speaker, the no shoots them down. “Damn I look good in this dress!” “Yeah, no, you should stop cross-dressing dude.”
  • Defusing a comment. “You’re amazing! You saved that child’s life!” “Yeah, no, I mean, it was my own kid anyway. But thanks.”
  • Shifting the topic without really commenting. “Dogs are great.” “Yeah, no, now chickens, that’s where it’s at.”
  • Agreement then addition. “Pizza is yum!” “Yeah, nah, but I’m getting too fat for pizza.”
  • As an intensifier. “I hate clowns.” “Yeah, no, clowns freak me out too!”
  • Sarcasm. “Can I drive your car?” “Yeeeah, no.”
  • To introduce an unexpected idea. “I hear you’re dying of cancer.” “Yeah, no, I made that one up.”
  • Answering yes to a negative question. “You don’t know Kung Fu do you?” “Yeah, no, I know him.”
  • Answering yes to a question, but contrasting your answer with how the question was asked. “Do you like Billy?” “Yeah, no, I love Billy!”

Yeah, nah, okay we get it. Yes-no makes sense. But why use it? Why use a phrase that is so obviously ambiguous?

Because we are cuddly.

Yes-no has been described as a form of verbal cuddling. It lets you preface a smack down insult with a life affirming ‘Yes!’ The blow of ‘no’ is padded with all the heartwarming fluffiness of ‘yeah’. Yes-no and no-yes are an expression of an indirect communication style. Squishy-squashy vagueness can be useful.

Some cultures prefer direct communication. Get to the point! Cut to the chase! Say it like you mean it! Other cultures go in for indirect methods. Get to a related point! Cut to a tangent! Say it like you don’t really mean it!

The direct says, “Please leave!” The indirect says “You must be very busy today!”  Directness sacrifices harmony for the sake of clarity. Indirectness sacrifices clarity for the sake of harmony.

‘Yeah nah’ and friends are so very very indirectly cuddly that they turn up all over the world. The New Zealanders think ‘Yeah nah’ is their unique catchphrase. “Yeah, nah, mate,” say the Aussies, “We do that too.” Yes-no has been reported in California, and New York, and Bill Clinton. The Brazilians, Romanians, Polish, Germans, South Africans, Indians, and more are all reported to have their own cases of ‘yes-no’ or ‘no-yes’.

So is ‘Yeah nah’ an inexplicable contradiction? The demise of English? Yeah, nah. Nah, yeah. Ah, no, no. yeah. Nah. Yeah nah. It’s good.


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

An exploration of the use of ‘yes-no’ on the Language Log, by Mark Liberman. Here.

Aussies and academics wrestle with the rise of ‘Yeah no’ in “Slang’s ‘yeah no’ debate not all negative” from the Age, here.


© Under Obvious, 2017.


May I Mansplain a Case of Doublethink?

“Mansplain” is a word that ought not exist. I don’t mean morally. I mean logically. It shouldn’t be possible. Yet “mansplain” has made it to the dictionary.

Allow me to explain:

1) “Mansplain” combats real sexism. A contraction of “Man” and “Explain” it points out sexist explaining.

2) “Mansplain” is a problematic word that gets abused in sexist ways.

Therefore, “Mansplain” is hypocritical at best, Orwellian doublethink at worst – the acceptance of two contradictory ideas at once:  sexist anti-sexism.

We are on controversial ground here, but I’m not the first to point out that “mansplain” has issues. The fact that the word has to be forever qualified with “not all men” and “yes women can mansplain too” goes to show how dysfunctional a term it is. For brevity we’ll take it as a given that “mansplain” is sexist (If you’re unconvinced I give links, and a full argument below. You should also read that bit if you don’t think mansplaining is real). Even if you disagree about the word being inherently sexist the fact remains: it gets abused. People are using sexism to fight sexism.

How is that possible?

The answer is not clear, so here’s some theories:

A)  We needed it?

We did need a word. We got one. It got used. It was dodgy, but it was all we had. The downsides were overlooked out of need.

B) Humor (and the enduring power of sexism)?

“Mansplain” is a funny word for some funny stories. Some of those stories are deeply depressing. But others are hilarious!

On this take, “Mansplaining” isn’t an issue. It is a popular joke. We like jokes. The word was just asking to become a joke. Man. ‘Splain. Ha ha. Good one. Is this why Sweden’s mansplaining hotline includes comedians?

On this view, I predict “mansplain” will loose all of its anti-sexist bite. The contradiction will resolve in favor of sexism. “Mansplain” could even become a positive word as men try to align themselves with their gender identity, which now includes the quality of explaining things like a man. At best it will join our other male gendered belly-ticklers, such as Dad-jokes and clichés about grumpy old men. “Mansplain” slides right on into these existing comic stereotypes, which may explain why it went mainstream with such ease.

In the end we will be left with “-splain” as a joke suffix, and “man-” as a joke prefix. “-splain” is already providing us with an endless series of  new “-splainings” (whitesplaining, geeksplaining, femsplaining). “Man-” has generated “manspreading” and “manslamming”. In this wave of tacky linguistic humor the original issue will be forgotten.  Sooner or later we’ll once again be in desperate need of a word to describe a certain widespread form of misogyny involving explanations.

Team sexism wins again.

C) Sexism is easy?

Egotism and laziness. The hypocrisy of people we agree with is too hard to see. Coming up with a better word is too hard. Self-examination is too hard. Figuring out the true motives of the person you are talking to is too hard. Is it really mansplaining? I don’t know. Feels like it. He’s a man. Screw it. He’s mansplaining.

Team sexism wins again.

D) When you fight monsters…?

So many men are sexist. You fight sexism everywhere you go. Those men. So sexist. They must be stopped. Them. Those sexist men. Them! Men are all the same.

And now you’re a monster too.

But don’t worry.  The fact that you’ve internalized the us-versus-them thinking which underlies all bigotry need not stop you. You can squish your nagging conscience and carry on. Look how violently you attack sexism. You can’t be sexist. It’s just like how those preachers who angrily condemn homosexuality can’t possibly be gay. Yup.

Team sexism wins again.

E) Do we have a double standard for sexism?

Men are not morally permitted to be sexist… but women are? If this is so, then the double standard fits well with our gender stereotypes. Women are tender and need protecting. Men must be stoic gentlemen, enduring the sexism valiantly.

Team sexism wins again.

F) Doubleplusgood doublethinkers are among us?

“Mansplain” wears it’s sexism on the outside. Man. Explain. Bad. Surely the contradiction was obvious from the start. This is straight up doublethink.

In Orwell’s novel 1984, doublethink is a tool of totalitarian mind control. Is that what’s going on here? Is it just a coincidence that “mansplain” is built like a word from Newspeak? Bring on the conspiracy theories! We can rule out all the ones about Reptilians in the White House. This was a bottom up process. Viva la Internet.

Here’s an idea that isn’t completely bonkers:

Relativism and Feminism often go together. Relativism in its extreme form is doublethink: no truth is true for everyone, and relativism is true for all. Applying this principle to all of society would lead to a form of intellectual totalitarianism. Relativism could never be criticized, because real criticism requires real truths. The only thing relativism can criticize is the giving and taking of offense, which seems to be something of an obsession these days.

If doublethink is already your permanent home, sexist anti-sexism is no trouble. So let the duckspeakers quack goodthinkwise! Unless that offends someone.

Team sexism wins again.

G) Revenge?

Why merely destroy the power of sexism over you, when you can take that power for yourself? Revenge feels good.

I doubt anyone is consciously thinking “Yeah, I’m going to sexist the crap out of this guy!”, but it may well give “mansplain” a certain seductive appeal. The hypocrisy is worth it. Besides they need to get taught a lesson. About time they felt what it’s like. Bastards. This one’s for team woman!


Team sexism wins again.

All or none of these theories may explain how we got “mansplain”. But if more than a few of them are true then we are left with a curious conclusion. “Mansplain” ought not exist because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. And, “mansplain” is popular because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. Man, all this explaining is hurting my poor little head.


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

I promised I wasn’t the only person who has issues with “mansplain”. Dive into the debate on Reddit. That’s always… interesting. It’s not just men: try “Why You’ll Never Hear Me Use the Term ‘Mansplain‘” by Lesley Kinzel on the women’s site, and “Allow me to explain why we don’t need words like ‘mansplain'” by Liz Cookman from the Guardian.

Read about Sweden’s Mansplaining hotline, from the Independent here.

For self-reported examples of mansplaining try Academic Men Explain Things To Me. Here.

Read about the psychology of hypocrisy, in the Guardian here.

Doublethink, on Wikipedia, here.

Confused by duckspeaking? See Newspeak on Wikipedia, here.


I  Totally Un-patronizingly Explain Why “Mansplain” is Sexist

Self-reported examples of “mansplaining” are easily found online. From these I’ve identified six different uses. The first two get at what seems to be the original intent. The rest are misfires and abuses.

Examples are from Academic Men Explain Things To Me.

1) Sexist Assumptions

Here’s an example from an American woman having dinner with her Australian boyfriend:

“… The policies of Julia Gillard came up. “Julia Gillard,” he explains to me, pausing the conversation, “is the Prime Minister of Australia.” “I know,” I respond, in a tone intimating that no further mansplaination is necessary. “A Prime Minister,” he immediately continues, as his friends look on, “is kind of like a president.””

This is the first case of classic mansplaining: the man assuming the woman doesn’t know anything, even when it’s become obvious that she does. Hooray then! “Mansplain” actually refers to real sexism…

…and it’s sexist. Putting the “man” in “mansplaining” treats this as a uniquely male problem. Isn’t that… dare I say it… sexist?

Good intentions don’t help.

The concept must be distinguished from the word itself. If the word was  “Igglypop” or “Zapwak” we’d be okay. But “mansplain” is too transparently constructed.  Therefore it automatically falls into a narrow meaning that attributes specific negative qualities to one gender. Man. Explaining. Bad.

Using “mansplain” doesn’t automatically make you sexist, but the weight of the word’s construction is too strong to avoid. It lends itself much more easily to sexist uses. It gets abused as a result, and huge numbers of men get offended by it’s face-value blanket condemnation of all men.

A better term would be “Stereosplaining” (stereotype + explaining), or “Assplaining” (assumption + explaining). Men may well be the most guilty of this, especially towards women, but clarity of language is important. Whenever someone has a cliché reason to think you’re an idiot, then you’ll receive a “Stereosplaining”. Take this brilliant example from an Asian American woman’s conversation on a plane flight:

“…He asked me why I was going to the university so I told him I teach English.

He says, “You mean you’re learning English.”

“No,” I say. “I’m teaching English.”

“You see,” he replies, “You are confusing the words ‘teach’ and ‘learn.’ You are learning English.””

This is about gender, and race (possibly just race). Age, language, clothing, education, job title, disability, …. People will assume you’re an idiot for a lot of reasons.

2) Power Games

Here’s an example from a woman who confronted a fellow student who was attempting some illegal activity:

“…Then he told me to “stick to your programming and let the lawyers handle the law” – the equivalent of “get back in the kitchen”.

When I explained that I had taken my classes that addressed copyright law, and that the head of the department herself could confirm everything I told him, he brushed it off and said the she didn’t know what she was talking about either because she was “just a teacher”….”

This is the second serious case of mansplaining: using a real or imagined difference in knowledge as a way of dominating someone. This deserves a word, but “mansplaining” isn’t it. Clarity of language!

One, it’s not just men, and two, it’s not about explaining – it’s about putting someone in their place. These games can be played all sorts of ways: questioning, name dropping, listing your qualifications, comparing IQ scores…. The word “mansplain” itself can be used to play this game.

Now for the misuses…

3) Being sexist

Sometimes people make sexist comments while explaining something. Some people call this “mansplaining”. Seems like a misfire.

4) Being an asshole

Being an asshole during an explanation can get you accused of “mansplaining”. Being an asshole is a problem. Hence the word “asshole”. But not all assholes are sexists, and some sexists are mighty polite. Assuming all male assholes are sexist is sexist.

5) Disagreement

The word “mansplain” can be used to shut down a conversation. No actual mansplaining needs to have gone on. The man is mistaken, or he’s a bit slow, or he just disagrees, or he is merely expressing his opinion. So he gets shut down. Game over. “Mansplaining” becomes a thought stopping cliché. You can use it to dismiss someone’s opinions purely based on their gender. That’s sexist.

6) Persuasion

Here “mansplain” is used to prohibit persuasion by men, especially when it is strident, passionate, or worst of all, insistent on agreement. Again this acts as a sexist thought stopping cliché. Hypocritically, the word “mansplain” is itself a strident persuading word. It belongs to that category of words that carry their moral condemnation within them, words like “slut”, “brown-nosing”, and “terrorist”.

I hope I’ve made my case.

© Under Obvious, 2017.