Was Mario Pei the greatest linguist of the 20th century? How many languages could he speak?

Yeah. I read his popularisations too back in the day, and they were good. But I’m struggling to think of what he contributed to the discipline.

Wikipedia: Mario Pei.

He was an old school philologist, I see. And I have all the respect in the world for that. But I suspect that, if you’re not working on Romance historical linguistics, he won’t be on your radar, and even if you are, he won’t rank highly. Among his books listed in Wikipedia, only one looks to be a straight academic monograph (French Precursors of the Chanson de Roland, 1949), and one other a collection of papers.

No shame in that. Good solid philologists are necessary; I wish there were more of them. And I do popularisation of linguistics here, now, instead of academic work. It too is important work.

But “greatest linguist of the 20th century”… no.

Answered 2017-08-04 · Upvoted by

Logan R. Kearsley, MA in Linguistics from BYU, 8 years working in research for language pedagogy.

Does the Greek word for watermelon, karpouzi, come from Ancient Greek?

Now, the notion that karpouzi ‘watermelon’ would derive from karpos ‘fruit’ is so preposterous, the only mentions of it you’ll see online are in a comment on a Greek blog article on karpouzi ( Το ελληνικό πεπόνι με τα πολλά ονόματα : “Is it out of the question that karpouzi should be a Rückwanderer? Just putting it out there”), and in a mock etymology over at Καινούργιες λέξεις ΙΙΙ . Karpouzi is so obviously Turkish in origin, it hurts.

In fact, I embarked on this question-and-answer, because I pointed out in a comment:


Sometimes linguists get their predictions wrong.

Νικόλαος Κονεμένος was one of the many scholars who weighed in on the Greek Language Question. (At least, I hope it was him that said this, and not Ελισαίος Γιαννίδης.) He confidently predicted that, in line with the mass extirpation of Turkish words from Greek that was underway, karpouzi would be replaced by the Corfiot word χειμωνικό, ‘winter plant’.

… That has not happened to my knowledge.

To which Ali Berat replied:

Karpuz itself isn’t Greek? I checked the etymological dictionary and

karpóō καρπόω. “To fruit, to crop” in old Greek.

… And that sent me on some searches, including

It was a fun voyage, and now you get to go along with me.

First of all, what’s a Rückwanderer? A Rückwanderer is a term in historical linguistics, for a word that gets borrowed from language A to language B, evolves, and then gets borrowed back from B to A. Like much in Historical Linguistics, it’s a German word. Wikipedia in English lists it under the more boring heading Reborrowing.

There aren’t that many instances of Rückwanderers back into English; anime < Japanese anime < animation is probably the best known one, and Japanese is going to be the source for most of them. But Rückwanderers are of immense interest to Greeks, and Greek has its own, rather elegant name for them: αντιδάνειο, “counter-loan”. Greeks like Rückwanderers, because they show that some of those horrid foreign words that Greek has been deluged with are originally Greek after all.

So as you’d expect, Greek linguists have invested a lot of effort in identifying Rückwanderers in Greek. But I hadn’t noticed karpouzi as one of them. Nor do Greek etymological dictionaries bother going any further back than “Turkish karpuz”.

So what’s going on?

The etymological dictionary Ali consulted, I’m assuming, is the Nişanyan: karpuz, which gives Persian xarbūz ~ Greek karpos. The dictionary online is abridged, but you can see what looks to be its echo in karpuz – Wiktionary, the Turkish etymology there:

From Ottoman Turkish قارپوز‏ (karpuz, “melon”), from Persian خربز‏ (xarboz, “melon”) and likely influenced by Greek καρπός (karpós, “fruit, grain”), both from Ancient Greek καρπός (karpós, “fruit, grain, produce”), from Proto-Indo-European *kerp– (“pluck, harvest”), from *(s)ker– (“to cut”). Cognate with English harvest.

If you’re wondering, btw, karpos has also ended up in English, as carpal, the adjective for wrists (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome). The wrist in Greek is called the “fruit” of the hand.

The etymology seems to be saying that xarboz is from Greek karpos, that xarboz was borrowed into Turkish as karpuz, and that the initial k is because it was re-influenced by Greek karpos.

Well, that’s one theory. It pays to click the links in Wiktionary: the Persian entry for xarboz says something quite different.

خربزه – Wiktionary

The Persian word may refer to ‘melon’ now rather than ‘watermelon’; watermelon in Persian is hindewāne “Indian fruit”, from Pashto, or battīx indi “Indian melon”. (And inevitably, there’s a petition online to replace the word hindwana in Pashto with islamnama: islamise the language of pushto and replace the word “hindwana” by “islamnama” ).

But the word xarboz has spread very far indeed from Persia: as Wiktionary lists, it is used in East Slavic, Georgian, Middle Armenian, Turkic, and all languages of the Balkans, all meaning ‘watermelon’ (except in Ukrainian, where it means ‘pumpkin’). It has also spread to Arabic, Sanskrit, and Marathi, where it means ‘melon’. So the word shows up from Latvian to Marathi, and from Greek to Kazakh.

Now, where does xarboz come from?

I’m not sure, but like I said, I assume Sevan Nişanyan thinks it comes from Greek. (This is unrelated to astonishing news I’ve just found out from Wikipedia, that Nişanyan has just escaped prison and is seeking asylum in Athens: Detained author in Turkey escapes from prison and tweets: ‘The.)

Nişanyan rejects the account that Persianists have given: Paul Horn’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern Persian https://archive.org/stream/grund… . Horn derives it from the Persian for “donkey-cucumber”, meaning “ginormous cucumber”. Horn gives xarbōǰīnā, which is the missing link, as a Pahlavi form: the Pahlavi-Pazand Glossary he cites has melon as khar-buzak, but cucumber as bōǰīnā.

Nişanyan rejects this account as a folk etymology: that would mean that Persians heard a foreign term, like, oh, Greek karpos, tried to make sense of it, and came up with “donkey-cucumber”.

And of course, anything is possible. But for that to happen, Persians would have had to find out about melons from Greeks. Hold that thought.

The third account is neither of the above: Paul Pelliot, Wiktionary goes on to say, claimed that the form is to be explained as Sanskrit trapusa, “the fruit of the colocynth” (Citrullus colocynthis), again with the form mangled into “donkey-cucumber” by popular etymology. And as it turns out, tarboze does mean “watermelon” in some Persian dialects; and the Marathi form given as derived from Sanskrit खर्बूज (kharbūja) is in fact टरबूज (ṭarbūj). In Pashto, tarbuja means watermelon, while xarbuja means musk-melon.

So. Three theories. Persian (Horn). Greek, with Persian folk etymology (Nişanyan). Sanskrit, with Persian folk etymology (Pelliot).

How can you tell which one’s right?

You tell which one’s right by tracing the history of the watermelon, and the melon.

The watermelon is native to southern Africa, and was known in Ancient Egypt from the 2nd millennium BC. Numbers 11:5 names them, אֲבַטִּיחִ ’ăḇaṭṭiḥ, as one of the fruit of Egypt that the Israelites miss in the desert. Citrullus colocynthis, the colocynth is a sister plant to the watermelon; the two diverged from a common ancestor.

(Remember Pashto battīx indi “Indian melon”? بطيخ baṭṭīḵ is Arabic for melon and watermelon, and related to Hebrew ăḇaṭṭiḥ. It’s also where the Cypriot Greek word for watermelon comes from: patixa.)

The colocynth is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, and it is the plant Pelliot appealed to in his etymology: it’s trapusa in Sanskrit.

Watermelons, as the English term shows, are regarded by people as a kind of melon. The Romans, for that matter, regarded melons and all cucurbitaceae as a kind of cucumber (cucumis); the Polyglot Vegetarian cites Pliny.

Watermelons are called Indian in Persia, which tells you that they came from the east to Persia. Watermelons were cultivated in India in the 7th century, and India was clearly one place that watermelons were disseminated from; Spanish and Galician sandía come from Arabic سِنْدِية sindiyyah, “from the Sindh”, and watermelons were cultivated in Cordoba in 961. But if Persia was the place that watermelons were disseminated from, and Persians used to also call them melons, then the Persian word for melon would have accompanied the watermelon in its travels from Persia to Russia and Turkey and Georgia.

Berthold Laufer, in https://archive.org/details/sino… p. 443ff, gives an account of the dissemination of the watermelon. “Indian Melon” tells him the watermelon is not indigenous to Persia; and he too suspects donkey-cucumber is a folk etymology. But he’s prepared to accept a migration of the fruit from Persia to Turkic to China. He thinks the t of tarbuz, which is present in Mongol and “Turki” (Turkmen?), seems to him to be a Turkic-specific dissimilation. (He presumably wrote this before Pelliot’s proposal.) From what he can tell, the words for watermelon in Sanskrit are all recent coinages.

The Chinese term 西瓜 xíguá for watermelon means “western melon”, and specifically, from Turkestan, as its mention in the New History of the Five Dynasties states. It had reached China by the 10th century.

One scholar has proposed that the Chinese word reflects Ancient Greek sikya “cucumber”, and Laufer laughs it off as a philological achievement. It’s not as absurd as it looks, though, given that the Romans conflated melons and cucumbers (and likely so did the Persians). Laufer is quite sure the watermelon was unknown to the ancient Greeks, though pepōn ‘ripe [cucumber]’ did become the word for melon, may have been used in that sense in Hippocrates — if it wasn’t referring to the gourd instead—and was certainly used in that sense in the Septuagint translation of Numbers 11:5. (In fact mēlopepōn ‘apple ripe [cucumber]’ is the origin of English melon.)

The dissemination path for the watermelon seems to be:

  • Namibia > … > Egypt > Israel > … {Iran, India}
    • Iran > India (Persian names, post-Sanskrit names)
    • India > Iran (“Indian melon”)
  • India > Andalus (“from the Sindh”)
  • Iran > Armenia, Georgia, East Slavic
  • Iran > Turkic > China, Ottoman Empire

So where does that leave us?

(See what I did there? Questions as subheadings.)

The least likely account is Nişanyan’s. There’s an off chance that the watermelon was known to Ancient Greeks, and it was likely known by Roman times. But Nişanyan requires not only that knowledge of the watermelon came from Greek-speakers, but that Greek speakers used a word as generic as karpos to refer to it. And karpos is as generic as it gets: it is fruit as in fruitful, and it doesn’t just refer to fruit from a tree: wheat is a karpos too, and so are nuts. Greek and Latin did have a generic word for Cucurbitaceae, which they would have applied to watermelon; that word was the word for cucumber. That’s not the word that made it into Persian (and it’s not plausible that it leaped from Greece straight to China).

(Oh, English has a generic word for Cucurbitaceae too. We call them gourds.)

The native Persian etymon, “donkey-cucumber”, is suspicious; not for the “cucumber” bit—it’s what people unfamiliar with melons call gourds; but for the Just-So nature of it: it’s the kind of word you would find as a folk etymology. On the other hand, Persia is closer to Egypt than India is; you’d expect they’d find out about it first. And Persian is the origin for the vastest dissemination of the word.

But the Indian proposed etymology makes more sense, if anything: the colocynth (trapusa) is the wild counterpart to the watermelon. And the watermelon clearly did travel from India to (back to?) Persia, as the “Indian melon”. It’s uneconomical, but certainly feasible that the watermelon bounced backwards and forwards between Iran and India in various cultivars.

So, weak vote in favour of the Sanskrit derivation.

Greeks should not be too dismayed that they cannot claim karpouzi as their own though. As a consolation:

Greece > Hungary: görögdinnye “Greek melon”.

EDIT: Dimitra Triantafyllidou’s comment is worth appending in full:

Ok, I have a couple of thoughts and alternate scenarios in mind for the mythical journey of my favourite fruit.

First, National Geographic (The 5,000-Year Secret History of the Watermelon )says that the plant originated in NE Africa and was cultivated for its water, not its taste. Ancient water-melons were rather bitter, but in the dry desert they bitter watermelons would have tasted like honey. E.g. to the Israelite in the desert. But since neither Greece, nor Asia Minor are quite as water deprived as Egypt it would not have spread among Greeks to the point of acquiring a name.

No matter where it first grew, the fruit might have travelled overland from the horn of Africa or the Sina to the Arab peninsula and over to Persia and India (the way H. sapiens did).

Or, it might have travelled in a ship. At one point the Sultanate of Oman controlled all those lands.

What I mean to say is that there in the first case there are deserts and caravans and in the second there is sea commerce. People have been wandering to-and -from on those paths since forever. A water melon is easily transported clean water. Plus, you just spit the seed and a new one grows in every port.

Therefore, it might have ended up in India without staying overlong and making a name for itself in Persia. Up to Hellenistic times it was still more like a coolant and a diuretic (much like the bitter cucumber in Greek traditional medicine), than a dessert.

And then, suddenly in the 2nd c. AD they start to become dessert but up until the 5th c. they are orange, not red. Much like … melons. It could be that the Indian word coming to the East together with a new better (sweeter) and red variety simply took over one of the meanings of the cognates of Hebrew ăḇaṭṭiḥ, and now there were two words for melon and watermelon.

I’m pretty sure that the moment somebody grew the first sweet, red watermelons the plants would have spread almost instantaneously throughout the Middle East.

Since this spread was completed by the 10th c. (Spain to China), i.e. when there was still direct contact between Greek speakers and Persian speakers it could be that the Greeks adapted the name to something familiar to their ears. If the Mongols and Turkmen kept the original t- at the beginning, why would the Turks turn h- to k-. Makes no sense.

PS What a great subject for a plant genetics thesis.

The Final Appeal

In May you never see this, I published the notice of a rejected appeal against a ban. As many commented, this final notice was as vague as moderation ever is.

It is not apparently advertised on Quora as much as it used to be, but long-time users of Quora know that one can go outside the normal process of appeals, and lodge a final appeal of moderation decisions with the permanent staff member tasked with moderation. On occasion, this staff member has found that sanctions have been meted out in error, and conceded as much publicly. More often, according to her own posts, the staff member finds that the sanction was correct, but its severity was excessive.

And some times, she finds that the judgement was correct, and that the final appeal should be rejected.

I have been made privy to the response to the result of the final appeal from said staff member, to the ban in question. I haven’t sought permission to republish its wording, and I won’t. But I’ll give Quora Moderation its due here.

The rejection of the final appeal that I have sighted enumerates:

  • The (quite high) number of BNBR notices given to the user during their time on Quora
  • The number of official warnings given
  • The number of edit blocks administered
  • The fact that receipt of those warnings was clicked for acknowledgement

The rejection of the final appeal also indicates that the staff member has reviewed the last n policy violations, and finds them to be correct; and that the persistent violations indicate that the recipient has not been able to “self-correct”, despite the “clear message” sent to them and acknowledged by their click.

I continue to think that there is a lot about Quora Moderation is broken. I continue not to think they are doing as good a job as the community deserves with high profile cases, or with their messaging. And I continue not to think that they are as cautious about bans as they should be.

But having seen this, I’ll concede. The rejection of the final appeal looked like a fair judgement to me.

(And, FWIW, to the recipient.)

Damnatio Memoriae

Nick Nicholas’ answer to Can you write a limerick about a Quoran?, July 24.

Masiello. Pegah. Jimmy Liu.
Sophie Dockx. Laura Hale. Ulrich, too.
de Guzman. Lisa Lai.
Jian Sun. By and by,
all are gone.

And then, me.

And then:



Mary C. Gignilliat

You are breaking my heart.

Having banned Mary Gignilliat last week, Quora has just seen fit to delete the question “What is your opinion about Mary Gignilliat,” a week later.

The only answer on there that anyone might consider questionable was Michaelis Maus’, saying that she wasn’t as radical as she thought she was. Mary initially took offence at this, but they were able to work it out, and ended up on good terms with each other. Of course, Michaelis has just been banned too.

Whoever reported this question for deletion is, in my personal opinion, a ghoul, and I find this kind of erasing of personhood from Quora offensive. But of course, this is the site that deletes profiles from banned users, and makes them unsearchable. Erasing of personhood is what Quora does.

We’ve agreed to be fungible here. Even if it doesn’t say so in the Terms Of Service.

Why are questions from banned accounts filling my “Top Stories For You” emails?

Because the notion that the content of everyone banned on Quora is unworthy of being read is a regressive and untenable notion, and Quora itself acknowledges that. Users get banned for any number of reasons. Some of the best damn content on this site has been produced by users who have subsequently been banned. A website that would choose to repress forever all the content of Michaelis Maus or Mary C. Gignilliat or Glenn Rocess or Bill Streifer or Taza Gul Kamran Khattak or Basil Fondu—to mention only people banned in the last week—is not a website I want any part of.

At this point, I would normally say “Downvote what you don’t want to see, and upvote what you do.” Curating your feed is how to stay sane on this site, and it does actually work. You’re reporting that your problem is with the Quora Digest, though, which you don’t have as much control over. While I was not that impressed by the Quora Digest myself when I gave up on it, “garbage questions from banned accounts” suggests that your digest email is full of troll questions. The Quora bots are dumb, but I’m surprised if they’re that dumb.

But the Quora Digest you receive is still customised to the preferences you evidence while logged in to Quora. I’d suggest suspending subscription to the digest for a few weeks, some enthusiastic downvoting and muting of topics and content you don’t want to know about, and resubscribing afterwards, and seeing if it makes any difference.

Which city is better Athens or Thessaloniki?

What are the main differences, i heard Thessaloniki is more cosmopolitan

Oddly enough, my wife (who is not in any way Greek) spontaneously said Salonica was cosmopolitan when she visited it. So there’s something to that.

The hostility between Athens and Salonica within the Modern Greek state is of very long standing: Salonica was incorporated into Modern Greece in 1913, and three years later it was the capital of a government rivalling Athens during the National Schism.

As with all such rivalries between the First and the Second city or country, it consumes the Second, and is blithely ignored by the First. My relatives in Salonica would mutter darkly to me about how Athens diverted all resources away from the North, and how the Salonica Metro would never finish, and how proud they are that “AMAN The Scumbags” were the only national TV show filmed in Salonica, dammit (and their subsequent incarnation Radio Arvyla still is).

Athens’ reaction to all that, of course, would be… “Oh, they have a TV studio up there? How adorable.”

Michalis Rizos’ answer (one of the very few pro-Athens) points out a truth: Salonica was cosmopolitan before WWI, and for a long time it was the more liberal and progressive of the two cities, but it became insular and downright claustrophobic for a while in the 90s. It is one of the oddities of Greek TV that I watched a quite intelligent and insightful discussion of Salonica’s turning inwards on Themos Anastasiadis’ chat show—in between the strippers and the facile mocking of politicians.

Thessalonica is a much loved and much-sung city. All together now, my fellow Greeks: you all know how these songs go.

My Thessalonica. stixoi.info: Θεσσαλονίκη μου. Lyrics: Christos Kolokotronis. Music: Manolis Hiotis. 1955. Singers: Stelios Kazantzidis & Manolis Hiotis.

My Thessalonica, great mother of the poor!
You who give forth the finest people.
My Thessalonica, great mother of the poor!
Wherever I go I have you in my heart!

I’ll never deny you, my Thessalonica!
You’re my home, I say it and I feel proud!

Beautiful Thessalonica. stixoi.info: Όμορφη Θεσσαλονίκη. Lyrics & Music: Vasilis Tsitsanis. 1950. Singer: Glykeria.

You’re the pride of my heart,
sweet, beautiful Thessalonica.
And even if I live in Athens the temptress,
I sing of you every evening.

Oh! Beautiful Thessalonica!
Oh! How I miss your magical evenings!

Salonicans don’t love it when Athenians love her patronisingly (“the most romantic city of the Balkans”), but Salonica is lovely and loveable. There was a brief time around 2008 when I fell out of love with her (stumbling over Salonica Metro roadworks), but the restoration of the beachside promenade has made her the true Queen of Cities once again. My Salonican coauthor and I ended up dedicating our monograph to her.

Athens? Poor Athens. If you veer off the tourist haunts in Plaka and wander the backstreets, you’ll see that Athens used to be lovely once too, in the 1890s. But Athens is now a machine for living in, much like a Le Corbusier edifice. It has nice bits. And it has the fearsome heritage of the Classics. But it doesn’t gel into something lovable, like Salonica does. It’s too busy encompassing half the population of a country.

It’s true that there are plenty of songs about Athens too; stixoi.info: Αναζήτηση στίχων ( αθήνα ). I just didn’t know any of them. Many of them struck the same tone as those two Salonica hits I posted. Yet this song—another I’d never heard of, even if it was sung by the inevitable George Dalaras—gives you a taste of what a mixed blessing the town is. A very brackish taste. Ignore the panegyric highlight images of the vid, and pay attention to the lyrics.

Athens. stixoi.info: Αθήνα. Lyrics: Sotia Gatsou. Music: Christos Gartzos. 1978. Singer: George Dalaras.

I know a town where the ashphalt burns
and you’ll find no tree shade.
Great history, important ancestors,
the lantern of the world, and its tomb.

Athens, you remind me of a woman sobbing
because nobody desires her.
Athens, Athens, I die with you
and you die with me.

I know a town in the new Sahara,
a desert full of concrete.
Foreign fleets, smuggled cigarettes,
and children who don’t know how to play hide and seek.

I know a town in the land of the Abyss,
an island of pirates and winds.
In the streets of Plaka you sell your body
for one glass of wine.

What day of the week are sad songs associated with in your culture, and why?

I’m OP, and this question comes from a discussion I had with Evangelos Lolos at https://www.quora.com/What-are-t…

For Greek, it seems to be Sunday. Cloudy Sunday (Συννεφιασμένη Κυριακή), the #1 sad song for the postwar generation. I want it to be a Sunday (on the day I die) (Θέλω να είναι Κυριακή). Hammer and Anvil (Σφυρί κι αμόνι) compares the singer’s life to Good Friday Mass; but it also asks for a nightingale to console his Sunday.

As to why: I offered in that comment thread:

My guess it, the end of the weekend is when you have more free time contemplate things.

Evangelos replied:

As for Sundays and why they’re good songwriting material, I think you’re right, free time is certainly an element. I’d also add the fact that the next day is a working day (== sad) and that certain things in Greece mostly take place on a Sunday (football matches, weddings, elections etc.)

Is it possible to speak Klingon without sounding aggressive?

As Jarno Peschier’s answer says, the brief for Marc Okrand was to create an aggressive-sounding language, that would map onto the “Blakh Vakh Gakh” aggressive sounds James Doonan had made up for the first Star Trek movie. And Okrand accordingly went shopping for gutturals: /x, q, qχ, ʔ/ <H, q, Q, ’>. I guess you can add /tɬ/ <tlh> as an honorary guttural, because of its affrication.

Does a language full of gutturals have to sound aggressive at all times? I’m sure Tolkien would say yes—which is part of the reason I haven’t gotten into Elvish. (Cellar door. Pfft. That’s just effete.)

Well, look at languages that have one or more of those gutturals. Is it possible to speak Arabic without sounding aggressive? Chechen? Nahuatl? German?

The human spirit, much like intonation and pitch, is suprasegmental. A couple of gutturals aren’t going to make a mother’s lullaby sound any less soothing to a baby.

I wrote a Crown of sonnets 22 years ago. It was a love poem sequence. The frontispiece was in Klingon. Here’s my reading of it. You tell me.

Rachel’s Crown

Robert Maxwell: Maxwell’s Peacocks

I will be assembling a list of the names and terms I make up and keep using to talk about Quora. I like assembling my own personal mythologies; but that does get in the way of communication.

One of the terms you may well have seen me use recently is Peacocks. The term describes the union of “life coach” types and “personal branding” types, who seem to use Quora primarily to enhance their commercial social media presence, and whose contributions to Quora are primarily platitudes and anecdotes of how to live life to the fullest, like them.

I was startled to discover one such, advertising how to game Quora metrics, and I named him here. I got a Benburr for that (oh, that’s another glossary term), and I deserved it.

Because I was sanctioned, I held back from reposting Robert Maxwell’s tirade against that kind of person in comments. But it does not name anyone, and it is actually a critique and not just a rant. And since it was the genesis of the term, and a magnificently written piece of prose, I’m now choosing to elevate it to a post.


I went to university with a bunch of these marketing/growth gurus—they were wannabes at the time—and, well, let’s say my personal opinion of them would strongly cross the BNBR line. The terminology is spot on—”thought leadership,” for instance. I think of this sort of thing and feel my bile rise on some atavistic instinct, an in-born genetic memory on par with how elephants find graveyards and retirees find Florida. Perhaps, in some dark corner of my ancestry, Glug went on about referral metrics until half the tribe got eaten by a sabretooth.

That said, this is a symptom, and, as much as we might tell ourselves that this is a Quora we don’t inhabit, I sometimes worry it may be the other way around. Quora has long since been the preserve of marketing, PR, startups and that entire ecosystem of preening peacockery that puts one in mind of Hunter S. Thompson’s comments on used car dealers from Dallas chasing the American Dream in the predawn chaos of a stale Las Vegas casino. Even in the early days, those topics dominated.

Another comment asks if we remember the time when people didn’t have to promote themselves on Quora—I think people always did, if, perhaps, more naively, and more narrowly. But now the hucksters have figured out the system, as they do.

Instead, we’ve dug down and built dens and hollows in the earth, showed each other the tunnels and mistaken it for the surface. And when one of the peacocks manages to peck into the tunnel, we shudder and tell ourselves that it’s not of this world. It’d be too terrifying, otherwise.

In Defence of Peacocks

Alfredo Perozo said in a comment on the previous post:

I can learn to live with the trolls, the conspiracy theorists, QCR, the anonymous OPs, the glitches, the bugs, the daily outages, the imbecilic UI changes, everything. But I can’t stand the peacocks.

This, I’m seeing from comments, is a very common sentiment among the readers of this blog.

And yet, I had a long discussion with Jennifer Edeburn about whether that last post defining Peacocks was BNBR, and that prejudice against them was a snobbery, that Quora could have no part of.

There’s been a lot of discussion in comments of why Quora welcomes Peacocks; and I note that Alecia Li Morgan has been articulating a cogent defence, in Why brands should be writing on Quora by Alecia Li Morgan on Quora for Business, of why Quora welcomes answers from businesses.

So I’m going to ruminate through why we don’t like Peacocks (those of us that don’t), and why that can’t matter to Quora.

(And here, I’m going to start reducing “we” from “we who use Quora” to “we who don’t like Peacocks”. Part of the point of what I’m saying is, the latter is a small subset of the former.)

There is abiding confusion on what Quora is for. The mission statement is extremely vague, and Quora’s own interpretation of what it’s about seems to have morphed several times since the beginning, when its hubris was untenable. Mills Baker has admitted that Quora has done a poor job of explaining its mission, although his own attempt was even less clear.

So we’ve made our own sense of what Quora is for. There are clear clefts in the community on what it’s for. Quora is not a debate site. The best of Quora is in the comments. Quora is for hard knowledge. Quora is for opinion.

But there’s a notion that Quora is for smart people. A notion that Peacocks themselves capitalise on: “a community for intellectuals to voice their opinions.”

So. What kind of a site do smart people think they want, and that they don’t think Peacocks belong in?

Smart people, I’ll guess from self-serving introspection, want a forum where they can further knowledge, in discourse with other smart people.

And what kind of knowledge do they value?

Not puppies and cat videos. Weighty knowledge. Verifiable knowledge. Well-argued knowledge. Knowledge provided disinterestedly. Knowledge provided for the joy of it and the sake of it. Knowledge provided by peers.

You can see why that definition of knowledge runs counter to Peacocks or Businesses. The knowledge they provide is not disinterested. It is provided with ulterior motives. It is, by common intellectual criteria, frivolous, not argued, and not open to verification. It does not come across as a peer activity.

Sure. That’s my notion of what Quora’s for.

That can’t be what Quora’s notion of knowledge is restricted to.

First, because the restrictions Quora used to impose at the beginning were much narrower, and many of us would resent them. All Venture Capital and coding, all the time. No meta discussion of Quora. No humanities (an imbalance that is probably still reflected in the distribution of quills). Not that much socialising. If you read the early StackExchange reactions to Quora, it’s dismissed as fluff; we are choosing not to be on StackExchange instead of Quora.

Second, because clearly, there’s an audience for Life Advice and Relationships, though those topics, too, were initially avoided by Quora. There are people that want answers to their questions there. We could say that their questions are less worthy than the questions we take interest in; but how would we draw a line that would exclude half the people we know here? And after all, don’t people deserve advice on what do in their lives, from a site that advances all kinds of knowledge?

And the Peacocks get upvotes there. Massive upvotes, and appreciative comments. There’s an audience for what they have to say. We can think that the advice the Peacocks give is self-serving and facile; we can think that there’s better advice to be had. Some of us, after all, even offer it. But if the Peacocks get the upvotes, that means that what they are saying is being valued by a lot of people, even if not by us.

And in this postmodern time of truthiness, I don’t know of a definition of knowledge to be furthered through Quora, that excludes Peacocks, and doesn’t exclude half of what we value (since we’re not on Wikipedia or StackExchange).

We don’t have to interact with Peacocks, or Businesses. But I’m having difficulty how that can be anything more than an individual choice, rather than a site-wide alignment.

Same goes for the fact that Peacocks get Quills. Lots of people get Quills, promoting lots of different kinds of knowledge, and lots of different aims of Quora. I’d assume that those Peacocks that get the Quill get it for how responsive their content is to the querents that they’re addressing (even if they aren’t us), and that they don’t get it because of how effectively they promote themselves. If the call is made that they do, well, good for Quora; that furthers Quora’s goals, after all. That’s all the Quill is about. Furthering Quora’s goals, of satisfying querents and attracting eyeballs; and Quora gets a lot of different eyeballs.

The good news is, the Quora feed sequesters us into the niches we prefer to sit in. Maxwell’s dens and hollows. I think we have good reasons why we dislike the Peacocks’ content and why we think they write it. And they’re our reasons, not everyone’s. And Quora isn’t just for us.

And… I guess I’ll just go back to my hollow now…