Some Written Words That I Wrote
by Flynn Washburne, October 4, 2017
I'm going to climb up on my soapbox right now and declaim, if for no other reason than I've got one, on something that may seem rather picayune and would therefore make me look like a persnickety fussbudget. Although, to tell you the truth, if the only reward for doing so was the opportunity to publicly air the phrase "persnickety fussbudget," particularly in relation to myself, it would be well worth it.
It's a little matter of language usage that's currently steaming my clams and making the pot lid rattle, and while I normally adopt a strictly laissez-faire position regarding self-expression, there is some shit up with which I will not put. Invent your own grammar and style, I say, and rules be damned. Concoct your own language, if the urge strikes; goodness knows my tweaker friends tax my comprehension abilities to the fullest and force me to be a sort of jackleg linguist, but for cripe's sake please let up, cease, discontinue, and give a rest to these unnecessary, superfluous, uncalled-for, repetitive, and pleonastic redundancies. Redundancy in general is irritating in the extreme, but I'm focusing on one in particular used by virtually everyone in America, including a lot of people who should and do know better.
In your house there is (probably), tucked away in the basement or in a designated closet, a tall, cylindrical appliance which facilitates the cleaning of clothes, dishes, bodies, and etc. — an appliance we all consider crucial, are all familiar with, and all for some inexplicable reason persist in calling a hot water heater. It's a water heater. The water going into it is cold, I checked. It'd have to be, presuming the hot and cold water coming into our homes comes from the same source, and there's no “cold-water cooler” in the basement.
Of course, it is necessary to differentiate between it and other heaters that may be in or around the house, but “water” is sufficient to qualify “heater” and if you combine them, it is natural to conclude that the condition of water heated is hot without needlessly appending the adjective.
Consider another ubiquitous appliance, the toaster. It's got a monopoly on the home toasting business, but if there were other things being toasted and other tools devoted to it — a hair toaster, say, or a cheese toaster — then it would be called a bread toaster. Not a toasted bread toaster. That would be silly. As is “hot water heater.”
I suspect this is strictly an American, and probably, knowing them to be inveterate copycats, Canadian, phenomenon. The British probably call it a hottiewettie and the Aussies, a willigamballaboo or something. As far as other languages go, I can only say that Spanish demonstrates admirable economy and good sense by employing a single word, or rather one of two — calefon or caldera — to designate the water-heating device. I shudder to think what polysyllabic throat-clearer the Germans have bolted together in the same service. Funny how a people so thorough and efficient in matters of technology and manufacturing could have such an unwieldy language (for more on this topic, see Twain, Mark: A Tramp Abroad, Appendix D, The Awful German Language). The French surely use some impossibly lyrical construction full of hyphens, apostrophes, and elisions that sounds like an exotic sex act, and that's as much as I care to speculate.
Anyway, I'm glad we got this sorted out, and it is my hope that all six of you will henceforth strike the “hot” from “water heater” and create a groundswell of good sense which will exponentially expand until the whole country smacks its forehead and asks, "What were we thinking?"
I'm thankful that I currently have the leisure and inclination to consider and resolve such matters, as the life of an actively addicted night-ranging crank-bot leaves neither time nor aptitude for ruminations like this. It's an all-consuming job, is tweaker, and requires an investment of effort wildly disproportionate to the actual rewards. The hours are long (24, each and every day), the pay infinitely variable (0-$$$), the working conditions deplorable, and the danger factor somewhere between commercial fisherman and West Bank falafel vendor. Like the rabbit with its thousand enemies, the tweaker must not only be constantly vigilant as both citizens and law-enforcement officials justly try to impede his progress and eradicate the species, but on guard against his own kind, with whom he can sometimes find himself at cross-purposes.
One night I was skulking around Fort Bragg and darted into an alley to evade a pair of approaching headlights, slipping into a power pole's lee to wait for the car to go by. When it had, I took off down the alley just as someone entered it from the other side. I felt a momentary jolt of fear — odds were it was someone of my own ilk, similarly occupied, but that was not necessarily comforting. There's a reason we employ the stock phrase "wouldn't want to meet him/her/it in a dark alley." Dark alleys are not settings for wholesome activity or positive interaction. They are the byways of vermin and scalawags, and the only people with any real business in them are cats, and garbagemen at certain times of year.
I could turn around and return to the thoroughfare, telegraphing certain information to the interloper, or continue on and risk a perhaps dangerous confrontation. Forth I sallied, erect and purposeful, trying to project confidence and territorial conviction by sticking to the middle. The stranger did likewise, and I thought of Dr. Seuss's inflexibly peripatetic Zaxes who would step "not an inch to the East, not an inch to the West" as civilizations rose around them.
But, as it turned out, I knew the cat. It was a guy called Speed Fetus, that for both his vaguely unformed physiognomy, and a tendency to curl up in fetal position after ten or so minutes of inactivity. The “speed”' part of course referred to his chemical avocation.
"Hey, Speed, " I said as I approached. "Whatcha got there?"
He was trundling a hand-truck behind him, heavily laden and covered with a blanket.
"Hot water heater," he said. "You got someplace I can take it?"
"Actually, you know, it's…" I began, but decided to table that issue in favor of the more pressing one. "What are you doing with it? I don't think I know anyone who needs hot water. "
"Nah, dog, I'm'a strip this bitch."
"Strip it of what?"
"Copper, gold, platinum, whatever's in there. "
"Platinum? Exactly what kind of science do you think is involved in heating water?"
"I don't know. They got platinum in them cadillac converters."
"Yes, for catalyzing carbon monoxide. This unit here is a tank, and a heat source. Where'd you get it, anyway?"
"That new house they're building up yonder. "
"So it's new? Why don't you sell it?"
"Nah, fuck that. I'm'a tear it down."
Clearly the salvage value of its components was outweighed by its utility as a project. It's a good thing, too, because after four hours of labor and considerable blood loss, enough salable scrap was retrieved to buy a pack of generic cigarettes.
As I supervised the deconstruction in Sandman's garage and the Fetus sweated and banged away on the unit, I asked him at one point, "Do you see anything wrong with the name ‘hot water heater '?"
"Nope. Says what it is and what it does," said Speed Fetus.
"Yeah, but it doesn't heat hot water, right? It's redundant. Unnecessary, the word 'hot'. Smell what I'm cookin'?"
He thought for a moment or two, or at least gave the impression of it by pausing briefly in his dismantling, and said, "Eh. Best leave well enough alone.” If nothing else, he'd certainly arrived at the nut of the problem. Complacency, acceptance of the status quo regardless of its inefficiency or inexactitude; "leaving well enough alone." Did Sir Edmund Hillary leave well enough alone, “well enough” being an unconquered Everest? Certainly not. Did Abraham Lincoln shrug and figure that half a country was better than none? Did Philo T. Farnsworth figure that we'd be fine forever only imagining what the heroes and heroines of our broadcast entertainments looked like, or did he invent television? Did the 3M corporation think it was okay to abandon our important messages and memoranda to the fickle whims of the winds, or did they give us sticky notes?
So no, I will not leave well enough alone. But in the spirit of those pioneering, persevering visionaries, will not rest until that pesky pleonasm has been eradicated.
I imagined a conversation many years hence, between two workmen;
Future Water Heater Installer #1: Did you know that up until the '20s they used to call this a “hot water heater”?
FWHI #2: Really? That seems stupid.
FWHI #1: I know, right? But this guy named Wishbone or something, he devoted his life to pointing out the redundancy.
FWHI #2: Huh.
FWHI #1: Still, nobody listened to him until he strapped himself to a large bomb and threatened to blow himself up if people didn't stop saying “hot water heater.”
FWHI #2: You gotta admire his conviction.
FWHI #1: Here's to ol' Wishbone.
Pausing in my ruminations, I looked over to see Speed Fetus curled cozily up amid a scattering of water-heater parts. I threw a tarp over him and went inside, marveling not for the first time at the queer and unexpected turns of my path through life.