Self-refuting sentence of the week

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An anonymous Op-Ed in The Guardian asserts that English has no word for politeness ("What's the worst thing about cycling? Other cyclists", 7/5/2014):

Interestingly, while we're on the subject of Japan, it has a large cycling population and many cycling laws – all of which are completely ignored. Cyclists regularly ride on paths and, indeed, police will even direct them on to walkways if they see them on roads. And yet cyclists, drivers and pedestrians get along fine. How does it work? In a word, politeness – one of those Japanese concepts with no direct translation into English.

There's a true statement somewhere behind this unusually absurd version of the "no word for X" trope. In 25 years of walking several miles a day in Philadelphia, I don't think I've ever seen a cyclist stop for a red light unless they were in imminent danger of being flattened by crossing automobiles, as opposed to flattening crossing pedestrians.

Of course, what counts as politeness is culturally dependent. The other day, as 30 or so pedestrians in a tour group were using a zebra crossing, I observed a cyclist approaching the red light at high speed shouting "Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!" as he wove through the group without slowing down. No doubt he thought of the shouted warning as good manners.



  1. Chaon said,

    July 5, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

    Cyclists are obliged to follow the laws of gods, not the laws of men.

  2. Michael Briggs said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 1:29 am

    I assume that these were British tourists in Philadelphia and that they brought the "zebra crossing" with them. Out here in Wisconsin we call them striped crosswalks.

  3. D.O. said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 1:48 am

    Ah, but it's a more interesting situation then "no word for X". It's "word X does not refer to any concept". I remember something very close to this was discussed on this blog regarding passive voice.

  4. Michael Carasik said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 7:21 am

    Morning, Mark.
    I'm a cyclist who almost always stops at the red light.
    Guess I'm not on your regular route.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 8:22 am

    I'm a retired driving instructor and non-cyclist in Edinburgh, Scotland. I would estimate that cyclists here stop at red lights 60% of the time, go through them 20% of the time, and dismount and walk their bicycle round the corner on the pavement (sidewalk) 20% of the time.

  6. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    Actual statistics – about 90% of cyclists (in various cities in Oregon) stop at red lights and wait for the entire cycle; about 5% slightly anticipate the green; about 5% blatantly run the red light.

  7. Noscitur a sociis said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    Is "zebra crossing" your usual word for the object, or were you quoting from the article? If the former, any thoughts about how you picked it up? I would have said that American usage was almost universally in favor of "crossswalk" but perhaps I'm mistaken.

  8. MattF said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    All very culturally determined. Many years ago, the New York Times had an item about an Italian driver in New York who was cited by the police for running a red light. "But I klaxoned!" he said.

  9. Bloix said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    Here in the DC area, I am a pedestrian, a driver, and a cyclist. And in my experience, the people who are far and away the most contemptuous of traffic control signals are the pedestrians.

  10. phspaelti said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    What I find amusing is that I can't think of a common single word in Japanese for "politeness". Of course there are plenty of words that mean polite (shinsetsu, teinei, reigitadashii, …) and you can always add -sa to get a noun.
    My dictionary here also lists ポライトネス (poraitunesu) as one of the options though :-?

  11. maidhc said,

    July 6, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

    A few years ago I was in Toronto during a city-wide blackout. When traffic lights stop working, you are supposed to treat them as a four-way stop. I can report that the Toronto drivers treated the non-functional traffic lights exactly the same way that they treat four-way stop signs — they barrelled straight through without even slowing down. At least in California drivers slow down a bit when they run a stop sign. The idea of coming to a stop at a stop sign seems to have been abandoned along with wearing baseball caps the right way around.

    In my observation, cyclists (I am one) usually don't stop at stop signs but do at red lights, likely because a red light is a good indicator of probable cross traffic.

    There is a small subset of cyclists who do totally insane things like ride the wrong way down the middle of a one-way street. San Francisco is renowned for its rude, dangerous cyclists. I've had them force their way through an intersection against a red light by banging on my car to make me stop – one of those San Francisco concepts with no direct translation into English.. However such people are a minority.

  12. Dave Hilbert said,

    July 7, 2014 @ 4:08 am

    I'm in Japan right now. "Polite" is not the word that springs to mind for the behavior of Japanese bicyclists. As far as I can tell, the convention is that if a pedestrian can see a bicyclist it is the pedestrian's obligation to get out of the way. There's clearly been a lot of accommodation (relative to the U.S.) to the presence of bicycles on the sidewalks, some of it on the part of the bicyclist but a lot of it on the part of pedestrians. The possibility that you might confront a bicyclist at any time definitely has changed the way I behave as a pedestrian.

    Perhaps it really is politeness, but as a English speaker I am incapable of recognizing it.

  13. Bill Scott said,

    July 7, 2014 @ 9:09 am

    Getting back to the original topic, self-refuting sentences, there is always George W Bush's statement that the French have no word for "entrepreneur."

  14. Charles N said,

    July 7, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    re: no word for entrepreneur:

    Too bad he didn't actually say it:

  15. Bathrobe said,

    July 8, 2014 @ 3:33 am

    If I remember rightly, cyclists in Japan were required by law to ride on the footpath (sidewalk). Again if I remember rightly, this law has been amended. But the idea that cyclists are rudely usurping pedestrians' space by riding on the footpath is not correct.

  16. Alex Bollinger said,

    July 8, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

    And I suppose the tour group was of 30 zebras? Clearly shouting at them is ridiculous since they can't understand what he's saying.

  17. Dan H said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 5:31 am

    I'm in Japan right now. "Polite" is not the word that springs to mind for the behavior of Japanese bicyclists.

    It does seem rather like the original article was arguing backwards from a cultural stereotype. The Japanese are polite, therefore the fact that the convention in Japan is for cyclists to ride on the pavement rather than the road must be evidence for/caused by/functional only because of that politeness.

    You could make a reasonable case that it makes a lot more sense for cyclists to ride on pavements. The risks from a cyclist/pedestrian collision are, after all, far lower than the risks from a cyclist/motor vehicle collision.

  18. Steve said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

    It's a terrible, and inadvertently hilarious, sentence, but I took the author to be saying that Japan's approach to bicycling works because the Japanese have a notion of politeness that the English speaking world does not have, and which cannot be easily expressed or explained in English, not that English has no word for politeness. It is more like, "English has no word for [politeness as politeness is understood and/or practiced in Japan]. Which, in fact, is almost certainly true: I certainly don't know of an English word that has that exact meaning.

  19. djw said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    Dan H–You must not be from Texas! Here, the road is paved, so the pavement *is* the road–and cyclists are supposed to ride there with the cars. Since you're absolutely right that the damage resulting from a cyclist/pedestrian encounter is less than one involving a cyclist and a car, our cyclists often wind up on the sidewalk (off the pavement), along with the walkers. We have a small, slowly growing number of bike lanes on the pavement (street, road) next to the cars, and last time I was in California, I saw that the University of Southern Cal has bike lanes on the sidewalks. I am so confused….

  20. Peter Gerdes said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    I found it well written and quite charming. The implication is not one of linguistic endowment but that we simply don't know how to be polite at all, e.g., the way someone might complain that people these days have forgotten what it means to be honorable without intending to suggest some confusion on word meanings among the youth.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    I agree with Dan H and Peter Gerdes. The sentence does say that politeness is a concept with no direct translation into English. As phspaelti said, Japanese doesn't actually have a word for 'politeness'.

    I think it's on a par with expressions like 'English-speaking people don't know what politeness is' or 'Politeness isn't even in the dictionary of most English speakers', both of which are hyperbolic and not to be taken literally.

  22. Norman Gray said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    I remember reading that article, and noting that sentence, and I took it to be entirely facetious, as a conscious play on, or indeed subversion of, the snowclone: "there's this Japanese notion of … 'politeness', I think they call it, which is unknown in Britain, and which we'd therefore have to import a word for."

    It's a bit of an exaggeration, sure (though the UK has some _issues_ to sort out with regard to bikes and cars), but it was an admirably compact way of saying quite a lot.

  23. George said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 7:59 am

    I agree with Norman Gray. The writer was playing with the whole 'no word for x' idea and quite cleverly so.

  24. Bloix said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    djw – "pavement" is British English for "sidewalk."

  25. James in Perth said,

    July 13, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    As an American transplant to Western Australia, I am amazed that almost every bicyclist stops at the red light AND waits for it change to green. I always raise an eyebrow and wonder "What the hell are they waiting for?"

  26. Jason said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    While I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I saw one of Madison's notoriously vicious bicyclists roaring down the road faster than any gas-powered vehicle. Suddenly, a Chinese graduate student piled high with apple products, just purchased from the Engineering Union's computer store, had the brazen audacity to attempt to cross the street when the crossing light was lit.

    Our hero, the cyclist, decided tha
    t shouting 'heads up! heads up! heads up!' was the proper way to handle this, as BRAKING is for fags. Just as the cyclists slammed into the poor Chinese student, I wondered, "is using a phrasal verb really the clearest way of communicating with international students?" Needless to say, if it were in Manhattan, you would have had bedlam, because there were boxes of apple products flying in all directions, not to mention two fairly nice shoes. (Yes, our hero, the cyclist, knocked the student right out of his tennis shoes. "That's for the Senkakus!" is probably what the cyclist thought…)

    The bicyclist stopped long enough to assess that the student wasn't crippled before she decided to take off. And the poor guy had to pick up his boxes, hoping everything was OK. Needless to say, every time I see a bike helmet, I get the urge to just stick a crow bar into the road…

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