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humpty dumpty

Humpty Dumpty in one of his better moods.

The other day in a meeting a colleague advised we not have more than about 200 words per web page for fear it would cause “cognitive dissonance” in our readers. What followed was empty looks as everyone tried to make sense of what she’d said. Did she mean they’d be confused? Overwhelmed with information?

In the real world—not that of pompous internal meetings—”cognitive dissonance” means: “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”

She’d pulled a Humpty Dumpty! Surprise!

By pulling a Humpty Dumpty, I am not referring to falling off a wall or being aided and abetted by the king’s employees. “Pulling a Humpty Dumpty” is assigning a word any meaning you want instead of its dictionary-designated definition.

Consider the following discourse from Through the Looking-Glass between Alice and our egghead friend:

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ “

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs: they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

“Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,” Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, “for to get their wages, you know.”

(Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)

I wonder if the words “cognitive” and “dissonance” came to Ms. Dumpty’s house after our meeting to demand their wages, time and a half for putting on such a spectacular performance and causing what I shall call “cognitive dissonance” among those in attendance.

I must away! I hear a knock at the door; it looks like I owe two words payment of some sort.