“The Gostak and the Doshes,” Miles J. Breuer, 1930

“The Gostak and the Doshes,” Miles J. Breuer, 1930 –  The protagonist is sent to an alternate universe in which a miscommunication about what the phrase means sparks chaos and warfare among nations.

Comments: A story exploring both the relativity of language and that of physical (historical) reality.  Begins with a discussion of Einstein and speculation on the t and z dimensions. 

However, the story’s reputation to date stems from its themes and use of language. See Michael R. Page’s introduction in The Man With the Strange Head: “It is a story of mass psychology, totalitarianism, and the misprision of language, and, like Orwell’s 1984, still holds considerable relevance…” It anticipated the rise of fascism and depicted the senselessness of WW I.  Page goes on to add that it “fits with the exploration of Korzybski’s general semantics in Golden Age science fiction, particularly that of Van Vogt, and it further anticipates the postmodern critique of language by such critics as Derrida, McLuhan, Foucault, and Chomsky.  The story generated many comments in the Discussion column, where it was praised for its keen observations on mass thinking and totalitarianism.”

The phrase “The gostak distims the doshes” has its own history.  Wikipedia: “The phrase was coined in 1903 by Andrew Ingraham but is best known through its quotation in 1923 by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards in their book The Meaning of Meaning (p. 46). Ogden and Richards refer to Ingraham as an “able but little known writer”, and quote his following dialogue:

 ‘Suppose someone [were] to assert: The gostak distims the doshes. You do not know what this means; nor do I. But if we assume that it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know too that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak.  If, moreover, the doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.'”

The phrase has been used since then in an award-winning video game and in a musical composition by Hiawatha in 1984.

Author: Wikipedia: “Miles John Breuer (January 3, 1889 – October 14, 1945) was an American physician and science fiction writer.”

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About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1926-1939, communication, favorites, knowledge/truth/epistemology, language/libraries, reality/VR/surreal, time/history/causality, totalitarianism/fascism, war/soldiers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The Gostak and the Doshes,” Miles J. Breuer, 1930

  1. thnidu says:

    As I recall the story, it’s not a miscommunication at all, but its meaning, if any, is opaque to the protagonist. One side – reading the story in the 60s, I thought of them as analogous to the West in the Cold War – insists that “the gostak distims the doshes” and treats this meaningless (to the protagonist and the reader) sentence with all the enthusiasm and fervor that we associate with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, the Pledge of Allegiance, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet”, and other expressions and statements that have stirred millions to fight and die. The other side treats its syntactic opposite, “The doshes distim the gostak”, with equal fervor. The public frenzy on both sides leads to a world war. As the protagonist is being led to his execution for his unpatriotic refusal to acknowledge this stirring, self-evident, and utterly vital truth, happenstance enables him to return to his home dimension, where apparently no time has passed since he left it.

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