The Semantics of Straightness


I’ve been struggling for the last 18 hours for a blog topic, and you know how it is: 20 minutes before it’s time to jump in the car and head to work, you’re hit with something you’re ready to share, and possibly even worthwhile.

It came from a friend in a text message: she said “My turn to wait at the orthodontist office.” Both my boys have been doing the Tooth-Straightening Twostep for a few years now. Daniel just got his braces off a couple weeks ago. this sent Alex into a fit of anger because he got his braces on first. At one point he even muttered “My teeth are straight enough…” and wanted us to scrap the nearly $12,000 worth of treatment we shelled out. Yeah. I’m not seeing it, bucko. If your dad had to have 4 teeth extracted, and wear braces from 7th grade until AFTER his senior pictures, you can have yours on a couple years too.

And now all my friends are doing it! bless ya, you’re in for a ride.

My next thought was why? Orthodontics has no discernible health benefit. It doesn’t decrease cavities or reduce stomach cancer rates, or even make us feel happy about ourselves. We just like things straight! We put a lot of money into straight things. Straight teeth (orthodontics) straight back (chiropractic), straight bones (orthopedics). We like stuff straight. As I reminisced further, I realized that even seemingly innocuous terms pervade our metaphors: “the straight and narrow.” “Straight up, dude!” Tidy white picket fences. Little maidens all in a row. We queue up, true to our mostly-anglo roots, and behave ourselves, because, like to confound all nature, straight is good.

On the contrary, the crooked path is bad. “Come straight home” says mommy. Saving time and steps are good. Meandering will lead you down a bad path full of sloth, gluttony and non-puritanical stuff. What’s the opposite of a nice straight pine tree? Gnarled? Twisted? The opposite of “straight up” is “gnarly” (I haven’t talked to a surfer in a few years so I may be corrected on this).

So where’s that lead words like “gay” or “homosexual”? I think you see what I’m getting at. What’s the opposite of “gay”? You know what it is. Again, to our old buddy “straight”. My point is that, semantically, anything that’s against straight has to fight a cultural, semantic bias in order to overcome it.

Smarter people than I (I’m thinking George Lakoff and Howard Kurtz) have realized that words matter. If you want to win a war, you need to change the language. Metaphor is so thoroughly engrained in our cultural and linguistic psyches that we can’t really separate the some concepts without lots and lots of work.

Maybe the simple act of embracing the term “straight” has led the LGBT movement to a half-century of panemonium. It’s like being branded on the forehead for LGBT folks: Well, if Straight is good, and I’m transsexual, then I must be… What? Gnarled? Twisted? Bad? Rotten at the core? Maybe even evil?

No. I don’t buy it. Fight the metaphor, people. You need to rethink your language, if you want to rethink your identity.

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4 thoughts on “The Semantics of Straightness”

  1. Your blog is, other than baseball scores and Green Bay Packer highlights, the only connection I follow on things going on back home. (While I Skype regularly with my parents, our talks are about their lives and grandchildren, gardening, health, etc. and not what’s happening in the big USA picture). Some of the issues you write about remind me of things that once seemed so important to me but have been forgotten over 16 years of living in a different country with its own issues and obsessions.

    Pearly white teeth lined up to perfection are not a big concern in Japan. In fact, countless times I’ve overheard my students tell a classmate (usually a female) who has a semi-double row of fangs (‘yaeba’) poking out at odd angles that their teeth are cute. For a country that has pastimes of arranging flowers or binding and excessively clipping little trees, you’d think a similar interest would be shown in arranging and lining up teeth. I remember the first language lesson I taught in Japan and the shock that I’m sure registered on my face when a group of students smiled and revealed set of yaeba that a Smilodon californicus would envy. Think about the dosh you’ve dropped at the dentist for perfect teeth and then consider this: In Tokyo there are dental salons which specialise in gluing in custom made fangs and tooth extensions. I guess in a way that is like bonsai, only for teeth, not trees.

    My fluoride/nicotine/tea-stained teeth with a slight Lettermanesque gap used to give me some shame back home, so much so that I never bared my teeth for the camera. Years after going through my first conversation class in Tokyo thinking ‘must not stare at teeth; must not stare at teeth; must not…,’ my perspective has shifted and now it’s not the flash of snaggly teeth but rather Americans gnashing their glaring white Tom Cruise grins that startles me. However, in thinking over recent pictures it’s fair to conclude that I still don’t like to show my teeth in photos.

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  2. Maybe instead of metal braces, you could get them Invisalign. I’ve been wanting to get it for a few years now, but it’s about $6,000 AUD. Something else for me to dream about when my novel sells or I win the lottery 🙂

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  3. I am totally sharing this one ! seriously cousin you write so very well ! you should really put all this blog and other thoughts to pen and paper &write a book . I can see BEST SELLER in your future and I will need 10% of the earnings for suggesting this 🙂

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