The Friday Fillip: Peeves, Foibles, and Quirks — Oh My!

You stretch, get out of bed, fling on something warm, and open the front door to gaze out at the day. If what you see is acres (or hectares) of fields or forests or snow or ocean, i.e. nothing, then… nevermind. Make your coffee, go back to bed, spend the day in your onesie — whatever. You’ve already provided yourself with the geographical solution to the problem of other people, the problem typically known as civilization. The rest of us, rejoicing in city life, must cope elsehow.

We do that basically by taking great care not to bump into each other too often or too hard. We keep to the right, as it were.

All cultures weave webs of conformity spun out of strands of varying strengths and characters: constitutions, charters, norms, customs, practices, etiquette and so forth. And nearly all of us are happy nearly all of the time to live out our lives on this web, enjoying the support and order it provides. But occasionally some of us position ourselves oddly, near but not on one of the compelling strands; we refuse to join the group in some small respect. When that happens, others of us may complain.

So long as the deviation is not too harmful, the majority may shrug, leaving the complainers themselves off base, as it were. And so the widths of the web’s strands are tested all the time. We might call those in one penumbra of a norm eccentrics and those in the opposite shadow peevers.

Full blown eccentrics are rare. It takes a certain kind of personality to come unstuck from a large number of the web’s strands and to do so harmlessly. In fact, so rare is it that we can regard such people with a kind of fond, almost protective admiration. Indeed, John Stuart Mill believed one could see the relative degree of rarity as a measure a society’s strength or virtue:

[T]he amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.

Makes sense. Everyone in lock step and we can only march; no one playing a tune and no dancing is possible, only chaotic milling about; somewhere in between and good things happen.

The vast majority of us have no wish — or capability — to be true eccentrics. But we do like a little quirk in our behaviour from time to time. We have our foibles, conscious or unconscious. These deviations from the norm help us, if nothing else, blow off some of the pressure that constant conformity can create. And they can give us a small measure of distinctiveness that marks us as different from our neighbours, as special within the ruck: this one always wears knit ties, that one sports a different bag each day, and yet another peppers her speech with Italian expressions though she’s South Asian and has never been to Italy.

Quirks don’t have to be as visible to the world as these examples suggest. Take collectors, for instance. The social norms are variety and moderation or, perhaps, moderate excess, when it comes to the accumulation of goods. Yet some people delight, often quite privately, in violating those norms and acquiring senselessly large collections of particular objects. The perfect example might be that of two highly intelligent, successful people who have a collection of differently designed disposable coffee cup lids — “the largest in the United States,” they claim. You simply do not know whether the person at the desk next to you smiles serenely because he has the world’s largest collection of left-handed socks.

Some practices that might be quirky are unconscious or are just mistakes. Most deviations from standard language usage begin as mistakes, I’d guess. Someone, perhaps thinking of “irrespective,” says or writes “irregardless” for the first time and it sounds so good or right or so impressive that it catches on. Users begin to stray off the usage strand of a web, giving rise to peevers, who attempt to bring them back into line.

Your peeves don’t have to be about the misuse of language, though they often are. Currently, for example, I’m running a seasonal peeve about the way many (most?) people mispronounce the name of this month as Feb-you-ary, as though Canadians couldn’t say feh and brew, for heaven’s sake. (I have a collection foible too, it seems, because I grumble about a bunch of 2-r words that get mangled: barbiturate, turmeric, hierarchy, and even library at times. And don’t get me started on the dropped ‘c’ in arctic.) Because so many lingopeeves are losing battles, the peevers themselves can become eccentrics (sometimes known as “good writers”). One marvelous example is “wikignome” Bryan Henderson, who has taken it upon himself to correct every misused “comprised of” on Wikipedia to the correct “composed of,” “comprises,” or some other proper usage. Thus far, with the aid of self-made bots and apps and hours of dedication, he has saved the world from 47,000 instances of this one solecism.

I said your peeves don’t need to be about language. Indeed. Here’s a site with a crowd-sourced list of about 500 things that annoy people. It’s fun to run down the list and see what sort of things people do to fight the web, deliberately or unconsciously, and what sort of things make you want to fight back to get them to toe the line. It’s an interesting survey of “rules” we might not know even existed or that seem so obviously right to us that we’d never consider flouting them. I’m not sure my peeves du jour are there: people who eat cooked food or groom themselves on transit vehicles. But there are plenty of other things there that do in fact get my goat.

How do you feel about “people who text during a movie”? Or who “leave beds unmade”? Or who “give their kids strange names”? Or . . .

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