Ran into these two words in a new bird book my wife Jen bought recently, What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley.
Isn’t that a grand and curious title? I mean, a title to inspire curiosity?
Just about everyone, I think, at some time, has wanted to fly like a bird, at least for a short while, before descending once again (not crashing) to earth.
But these two new words, precocial and altricial? I’m not much of a birder, though Jen and I feed birds in our backyard and try to identify them.
Precocial? I might have first read precocious.
Yes, the words are related, both signifying early development. (According to dictionary.com, precocious first appears in English in the 17th century and derives “from Latin praecox early maturing, from prae early + coquere to ripen.”)
But precocial means, roughly, that a bird is born eyes wide and able to take care of itself more or less. Think chickens.
Or, to cite the dictionary once more, “Born or hatched in a condition requiring relatively little parental care, as by having hair or feathers, open eyes, and the ability to move about. Water birds, reptiles, and herd animals usually have precocial young. Compare altricial” (American Heritage Science Dictionary).
Altricial, on the other hand, signifies a bird (think most birds), or other animal, that’s naked and pretty helpless at birth without parental care and protection.
To speak metaphorically, we might designate human beings who still need care, despite their age, as altricial. “Oh, do grow up, man!” (Some might be our relatives, sigh.) Those who are precocial or precocious can take care of themselves fully and fly with the best of ’em.
Acronyms are often not much more than signs of an insider’s knowledge, a way of knowing and understanding that invites the initiated and excludes the unwashed and ignorant. A way of suggesting who’s the in-crowd and who’s the out-.
Several years ago, I made up tee-shirts to score a point against the demeaning and diminishing influence of acronyms. I meant these HAA!, or Humanists Against Acronyms, tees to battle the forces of modern life (scientific, technical, institutional) that reduce and insult us both as individuals and as societies.
Other forms of language, like jargon, may be equally divisive. Today’s political language bristles with know-it-all and in-your-face jargon: politically correct, woke, RINO, fake news, and dog whistle.
Some of these terms are turned on their heads by political opponents, of course: politically correct, or PC, and woke are often used as terms of opprobrium. You might argue that sleepyheads of all persuasions — that is, ideologs — are fond of bending the language of the opposition to their own end. But any language, used too often to mean the one correct, permissible, and praiseworthy thing, without persuasion or support, becomes abusive.
I felt just so, I must admit, when I read the other day in an essay by bell hooks the label white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. Oof! what a mouthful! It’s not just that this phrase is long and ugly, it’s that it is ideology that piles up accusations and levels them against society as a whole, or white society as a whole. Ordinarily, I think hooks writes very well, gracefully and not didactically, so that the reader is persuaded to listen attentively and consider her arguments carefully. But this phrase is not an argument but an accusation, a clunker. It’s a clinker that won’t burn. A dog that won’t hunt. It’s preaching that won’t win over anyone who’s not already in the choir.
Of course, much of American society, in many ways, has elements of racial supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy. (The white man still rules, decides wages, takes profits, throws his weight around, endorses hierarchy.) But hooks’ characterization is not the way that American society as a whole works. It’s not an accurate or adequate characterization of who we are and where we’re going as a people.
Not all of us fawn over Donald Trump, who’s innocent of all ideas except self-exaltation, or Ron DeSantis, who’s been busy indoctrinating his followers against forms of indoctrination other than his own.
Those who see the injustice in rigid political positions, and the ideologies that support them, will fight back against their excesses, whether these are left-wing or right-wing positions. In doing so, they might well feel they’ve earned some respect.
As an alternative to bell hooks’ white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, I suggest we resort to a less offensive, if more opaque, acronym. Something like WSCP (pronounced wusscup). I know, I know. Acronyms are ugly, but can occasionally afford comic relief.
And sometimes humor and humility are what we need a lot more than being correct, whether left or right, in whatever activity we’re active in. Let’s have a good laugh and return to illuminating discussions.