Monday, October 11, 2010

What's so hard about "prosopagnosia"?

You may well disagree with me on this -- my friend Betsy already has, strenuously -- but I thought it was odd of the Times Book Review to make such a fuss over prosopagnosia, the medical term for face blindness.

In yesterday's review of  Heather Sellers's new memoir, Mary Roach told readers that
"You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know" does not read like any memoir you know, largely because of a condition you may not know and certainly can’t say: prosopagnosia.
Now, I don't object to seeing a rough pronunciation key supplied, as Roach does a bit later: "It's  pro-so-pag-NO-see-uh," she confides. But is this really a difficult word? Yes, it's long, and I can imagine a momentary pause while the reader considers whether this is the -gn- of  lagniappe or the -gn- of agnostic. But I don't see anything else that's likely to slow down the typical Times reader.

Hyperbole like "a condition you ... certainly can't say" is generally frowned on in journalism, because -- like the classic bad example, "For anyone who's been living in a cave" -- it risks insulting readers. But I'm not a hard-liner; I think plenty of English words are tough to sound out, and plenty of others (like Zagat, which also rated a Times gloss yesterday) are hard to remember. I just don't see how you'd take prosopagnosia to be one of them.

22 comments:

greygarious said...

The word is indeed harder to remember than to pronounce. However, that may not be the case much longer. Science media seem to be holding a prosopagnosia cotillion. It was the subject of a recent New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks, whose newest book, "The Mind's Eye", which is about vision and the brain, comes out this month. Can Charlie Rose be far behind?

Richard Lindberg said...

I'm with you on this, since my reaction was the same as you described, a pause to sound it out. There is nothing hard in the sounds or the placement of emphasis.

I also agree with what you almost said, that writers should not talk down to readers.

The Book Nut said...

The problem lies with the school system that seemed bent on doing away with phonics back in the 70s and 80s. I have seen many people that don't have the first clue how to "sound out" a word. It's very sad.

John Cowan said...

I say /proʊzoʊpægˈnoʊʒə/ ("pro-zo-pag-NOWZH-uh") myself, and since I have it, I probably use the word more than most people. But "face blindness" is usually a clearer and more memorable term. I don't have such a severe case as Sellers: I recognize immediate family members mostly without problem, though I can have trouble picking their faces out of a crowd. Some people have such a severe version that they can't recognize themselves in a mirror.

Although nobody knew that congenital face blindness existed when I was growing up, my parents were wonderful people, and life at home was the best part of my childhood by far. I had a lot of problems navigating school, not knowing friends from enemies and often winding up with no friends, though other aspects of my character certainly contributed to that.

I distinctly remember reading in another interview with Tim and Nina that Zagat rhymes with "the cat", so I'd say the final vowel is still not very clear.

Shannon said...

Agreed. I don't read the Times and I figured out how to say it just fine, so everyone who does and is therefore smarter than I, should have no problem. The author could use a lesson in analyzing her (his?) audience.

farmgirlatheart said...

What, pray tell, is "face blindness?" I mean honestly, on what other part of the body can there be blindness???

Also, of course there is trouble over the pronounciation of this word. As you mentioned the "gn" issue, but I would not have pronounced "-sia" as "see-uh" instead as "zhuh." In fact, I think I would have said "prozo-pan-o-zhuh."

empty said...

I'm with you.

Joel C Anatoli said...

I love your blog!

Carrie said...

I agree. I haven't seen that word before, but figured out how to say it in about a second of sounding it out. There are other words to pick on - like gnat - and assume that people can't say.

Stan said...

The phrase "certainly can't say" is remarkably patronising — especially since, as you say, the word's pronunciation wouldn't be difficult to guess even on a first encounter.

I agree: there's no harm in supplying the pronunciation guide. As well as the matter of how to handle -gn-, there's also a possibility of minor confusion over whether it's "-so-pag-" or "-sop-ag-".

nuclearheadache said...

Well, it doesn't exactly slide off the tongue. If it wasn't for the "rough pronunciation key", I think I'd be at a complete loss as to where one syllable ends and another begins.

However, I get what you're saying about "hyperbole." Careless generalizations like that always tend to rub me the wrong way, especially when the generalization is that everyone is a just a little bit stupid.

NanU said...

It would be a tragedy indeed to limit the vocabulary of newspapers to the lowest common denominator. "Prosopagnosia" is unusual. Long. Intimidating to some. But not difficult!

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Face blindness" is an inability to recognize people by their faces which is not due to poor eyesight. You can see the face just fine, you simply cannot recognize it as a face, let alone a particular face.

Use of "blindness" in this way isn't uncommon to cognitive science - another example is "change blindness" which is an inability to notice that a scene or picture has changed since you last saw it, again even if you have fine eyesight.

Anonymous said...

From one recovering nitpicker to another: In the line that reads "...Heather Sellers's new memoir," should not the second 's' be dropped (i.e., Sellers' new memoir). My understanding is that you only include the second 's' if it is pronounced.

Jan said...

Anon: "Sellers's" is Boston Globe style, and as I was an editor there for nearly 20 years, I tend to follow that style automatically. AP style is to use only the apostrophe for an s-ending possessive; some publications add various exceptions, but whatever you do, it's about house style, not correctness.

NP said...

RE: The Book Nut

Schools were right to do away with phonics. Maybe prosopagnosia can be sounded out, but many words in English language are not phonetically correct. Spelling is more about visual recognition than anything else.

Even prosopagnosia... if it wasn't spelled out for me, and I just heard the word spoken, I think I would want to spell it with a third "o" (prosopognosia). Though, of course, that could be related to the region I live in... again, another reason phonics just doesn't cut it. Different region = different accent = different sound = different spelling.

Jed Waverly said...

I agree totally with Book Nut (and, therefore, disagree totally with NP.) Phonics is an exceedingly valuable tool for a reader. The fact that there are exceptions does not invalidate the science of phonics. It makes it more interesting. I,too, get comments from readers of my blog that they can't pronounce some the words I choose to feature. It always amazes me, until I stop to calculate their age. As Book Nut points out, they are usually products of the current era where phonics is disregarded in public education. What a shame.

mighty red pen said...

Way to talk down to the readers! It makes me want to crank call Mary Roach and say "prosopagnosia" over the phone to her ten times fast.

outerhoard said...

I just complained about a use of "living in a cave" earlier today. So often it means "living in a country other than mine".

domeafavour said...

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http://twitter.com/Write_Well_

renaissanceguy said...

Many people do not know how to divide words into syllables. It's a shame. I was taught it in school as part of the phonics instruction. A long word, after all, is simply a series of syllables, often of only two or three letters, as in this case.

Phonics is to reading what learning the parts of an engine is to mechanics. It should be taught and taught thoroughly. Most words can be read phonetically, if one knows the rules. Spelling is a bit trickier, but phonics is the key that allows a person to read almost any word--with at least partial success--even if one has never seen it before.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful blog! Here's the thing. For those of us wired for words, it's easy to pronounce words. But this is a hard word. It's hard. For lots of people. As faces are hard.