Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Captain and Me

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate." This famous line, uttered by the Captain, the head of a Florida prison work camp in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, once was a catch phrase that was invoked when misunderstandings came to light. I don't hear it often anymore, not because we are all communicating so well, but, since only film buffs among those less than middle-aged will have seen the Paul Newman flick, it has faded from public consciousness.

Too bad. The line so completely describes so much writing these days, from serious periodicals to texts and tweets that use so many abbreviations and symbols that I sometimes feel that I am deciphering hieroglyphs without the benefit of a Rosetta Stone.

Take this paragraph found on Good Morning America's Web site: “Although cannabis has been consistently associated with psychosis in prior studies, there is an ongoing debate about whether the relationship is causal, whether it can be explained by residual confounding, or whether it can be explained by the use of the drug to self-medicate for existing psychotic symptoms.”

Personally, I can't explain anything by “residual confounding.” I had to do a little research to find out that it means an "effect that remains after one has attempted to statistically control for variables that cannot be measured perfectly." And that cleared that up, right? Here's the problem I have with this writing example—look back at where I found this nugget. Good Morning America's Web site. Couldn't the writer put it in a little more everyday language for what is certainly a site geared to Joe Six-Pack (or, more likely, Mrs. Joe Six-Pack).

A perplexing online abbreviation I ran across recently was "LDS SAHM." It was used as an identification by commenters on a book review. I knew "LDS"—Latter Day Saints or Mormon—but "SAHM" stumped me. Fortunately, scrolling through the comments I found someone equally confused who asked for clarification. Turns out that "SAHM" means "stay-at-home mom." Now I know, but, really, why are we putting up barriers to understanding?

Then there's just the near-incoherent. A staffer for a New York politician wrote this: "She doesn’t suffer people who don’t support her lightly." Really? Did you read that sentence before hitting "send"?

Failure to communicate is still with us. By the way, if you haven't seen the movie, add it to your Netflix queue. From then on, you'll read the words "failure to communicate" in Strother Martin's Deep South drawl. My own memory of the movie includes the reflection that I saw it with what must have been a very disappointed date. When he asked what I wanted to do when we went out, I immediately answered that I wanted to go to the drive-in theater. A hold-over from the heyday of drive-ins, it screened way-past-their-expiration-date movies, and Cool Hand Luke was playing. I ate popcorn and soaked up the classic film.

Looking back on it, I think my date and I may have had a failure to communciate.


  1. Funny thing is, Strother Martin was born and raised in the midwest. Apparently he never lived in the south... a tribute to his acting talent (and probably some hard work).

  2. I didn't know that. He sounded authentic.