Coming full circle

Experts often end up where they started as beginners.

If you’ve never seen the word valet, you might pronounce it like VAL-it. If you realize the word has a French origin, you would pronounce it val-A. But the preferred pronunciation is actually VAL-it.

Beginning musicians play by ear, to the extent that they can play at all. Then they learn to read music. Eventually, maybe years later, they realize that music really is about what you hear and not what you see.

Beginning computer science students think that computer science is all about programming. Then they learn that computer science is actually about computation in the abstract and not about something so vulgar as a computer. But eventually they come back down to earth and realize that 99.44% of computer science is ultimately motivated by the desire to get computers to do things.

In a beginning physics class, an instructor will ask students to assume a pulley has no mass and most students will simply comply. A few brighter students may snicker, knowing that pulleys really do have mass and that some day they’ll be able to handle problems with realistic pulleys. In a more advanced class, it’s the weaker students who snicker at massless pulleys. The better students understand a reference to a massless pulley to mean that in the current problem, the rotational inertia of the pulley can safely be ignored, simplifying the calculations without significantly changing the result. Similar remarks hold for frictionless planes and infinite capacitors as idealizations. Novices accept them uncritically, sophomores sneer at them, and experts understand their uses and limitations. (Two more physics examples.)

Here’s an example from math. Freshmen can look at a Dirac function δ(x) without blinking. They accept the explanation that it’s infinite at the origin, zero everywhere else, and integrates to 1. Then when they become more sophisticated, they realize this explanation is nonsense. But if they keep going, they’ll learn the theory that makes sense of things like δ(x). They’ll realize that the freshman explanation, while incomplete, is sometimes a reasonable intuitive guide to how δ(x) behaves. They’ll also know when such intuition leads you astray.

In each of these examples, the experts don’t exactly return to the beginning. They come to appreciate their initial ideas in a more nuanced way.

“When we travel, we travel not to see new places with new eyes; but that when we come home we see home with new eyes.” — G. K. Chesterton

Related posts

24 thoughts on “Coming full circle

  1. Cyrille de Brébisson

    it’s val A (val using the english pronunciation that you would expect and A as in the letter A as pronounced in A B C)…

    Cyrille, French and proud of it!

  2. “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”

    — Kurt Vonnegut

  3. I looked in the OED Concise (1995) and in Webster’s (2003) and both listed VAL-it as the only pronunciation. Some newer sources, such as, list both pronunciations. So VAL-it is at least acceptable if not preferred.

    However, I would be very reluctant to say “VAL-it” because nearly everyone in the US (and according to Mike, the UK as well) says “val-A.” I imagine most people would think “VAL-it” sounds either ignorant or affected.

  4. For some reason, the idea of returning to the same place but with a better appreciation made me think of the branches of the complex logarithm. If you travel around its Riemann surface you keep returning to the same point, just a level “higher” each time.

  5. Cyrille de Brébisson

    ho, and by the way, the proper pronunciation is 2 sylabs as in:
    va-lA and not val-A


  6. The pronunciation VA-lit is exactly what you’d expect for a word borrowed from Old French (the period before about 1300-1350). The OED gives an attetation from 1567, but it’s attested much earlier than that; the Middle English Dictionary lists an attestation from 1357, and that’s only representative. The word’s from Latin vassellittum, a dminiutive of vassus ‘servant,’ and the Old French (vaslet, varlet, vallet, and variants) is attested at least as early as 1160 (the date given in Greimas’ Dictionnaire de l’ancien français). Given its close association with feudal institutions, “valet” was probably borrowed very early in the Norman period. Interestingly, the word vassus is of Celtic origin.

    It’s very common for words borrowed from Old French to have retained their contemporary pronunciations (except for the subsequent changes in pronunciation in English) for centuries, until current French pronunciations got borrowed by the learned. The variation VA-lit / va-LAY is a perfect example. A classic example is “diverse,” which even in the time of Chaucer varied between DI-vers and di-VERS; Chaucer used either pronunciation as needed by the meter, even in the same line. On the other hand, many words with Old French pronunciations are so nativized that they’re probably immune to such frenchification: “portrait” is POR-tret, full stop; por-TRAY is very unlikely ever to catch on, partly because that’s the pronunciation of another common word.

  7. Reminds me of this:
    Before we study Zen, the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers. While we are studying Zen, however, the mountains are no longer mountains and the rivers are no longer rivers. But then, when our study of Zen is completed, the mountains are once again mountains and the rivers once again rivers.

  8. “foyer” is a better example.

    “foi-er” is the straight forward pronunciation, “foi-ey” the pretentious pronunciation, “foi-er” the correct / standard pronunciation.

  9. “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”
    –T.S. Eliot

  10. Seems like everyone who doesn’t have a preference about the pronunciation of valet is commentating about that this phenomenon reminds them of. For me, it’s a little like Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero, who must go on a journey and return home changed for the story to be complete.

  11. The other day, a Frenchman rushed up to me and said he’d lost his val-it.

    I pointed out that his pronunciation was incorrect.

    Then I realised he was a German who’d lost his wallet.

  12. This post made me think of two quotes. One from T.S. Elliot, which Everett has already posted. The other is attributed to Bruce Lee:

    Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

    And there is also a concept in Zen Buddhism called “Shoshin” which refers to the retention of “beginner’s mind”. I’ve heard it expressed as:

    In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

  13. my dad’s friend has first hand experience of the same. he started as a ship building business, than did some machine manufacturing, pump manufacturing and after full 40 year came back to ship building business. :)

  14. It looks like a cycle in life. From nothing to something and then get back to “nothing”. But the last “nothing” is not really mean nothing. It’s “nothing” with a double quotes.

  15. human mathematics

    Economics is rife with examples. (Which is why knowing a little economics is a dangerous thing.) Minimum wage, free trade, government vs private sector, and so on. Although, the “expert” (learnèd) view is often laced with exceptions & caveats, so the experts and beginners wouldn’t agree in a large enough neighbourhood of the question.

  16. human mathematics

    ^ To be more concrete: someone with 0 economics classes might say that commerce is full of people trying to screw each other, so it couldn’t possibly be mutually beneficial. Someone with 1 economics class might learn the Welfare Theorem and that the market outcome is Pareto optimal. A professional mathematical economist might know that the welfare theorem depends on Gerard-Debreu general equilibrium theory, but a theorem by Geanakoplos & Polemarchakis shows that under different assumptions the private market outcome is suboptimal.

  17. According to an interpretation of Hindu Philosophy, we are all originating from the great ‘nothingness’, assuming form, going through various phases of transformation and at the end of it all, going back to same ‘nothingness’.

    An excellent article, Sir! Not only delightful; it leaves the mind working hard for hours after one has finished reading it.

Comments are closed.