Oh, goodie, new words.
I grew up with a person for whom the word "tact" was the past tense of what you do when you affix a note to a bulletin board. I'm sure she thought she was being straightforward and honest. Frankly, I could have done with a few lies and a touch of circuitousness. And now the psychologist Steven Pinker has stepped forward to explain why, in his new book The Stuff of Thought.
This is from a write-up about it, in the current Time Magazine:
"Why don't people just say what they mean? The reason is that conversational partners are not modems downloading information into each other's brains. . .
"The clearest example is ordinary politeness. When you are at a dinner party and want the salt, you don't blurt out, 'Gimme the salt.' Rather, you use what linguists call a whimperative, as in 'Do you think you could pass the salt?' or 'If you could pass the salt that would be awesome.'
"Taken literally, these sentences are inane. The second is an overstatement, and the answer to the first is obvious. Fortunately, the hearer assumes that the speaker is rational and listens between the lines. Yes, your point is to request the salt, but you're doing it in such a way that first takes care to establish what linguists call 'felicity conditions,' or the prerequisites to making a sensible request. Your goal is to have your need satisfied without treating the listener as a flunky who can be bossed around at will."
Whimperatives! Felicity conditions! Don't you just love those?
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everybody here for your damned fine whimperatives, and to say that I deeply appreciate our felicity conditions.
(Photo: The king of the un-whimperative, Basil Fawlty, himself, as played by the incomparable John Cleese.)