Saturday, May 29, 2004

What Don't You Know?

Another item from last week's visit to Austin:

During my sister's graduation ceremony, at one point in the program a woman sang "Colors of the Wind" from the movie Pocahontas. The first verse ends with these lines:
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger,
you'll learn things you never knew you never knew.
I've written before about song lyrics that are just ambiguous enough to distract me from appreciating the song itself while I mentally diagram the possibilities, and this is another prime example. In this line, is the speaker merely repeating you never knew for emphasis, or does she actually intend the meaning captured in the paraphrase "things such that you never even knew you didn't know about them"? After ten years, I've finally decided that this is indeed the intended meaning, and what's more, I now see that it's another case of the Unknown Unknowns!

The Unknown Unknowns, of course, are what Donald Rumsfeld referred to in a concise and insightful, but nonetheless widely ridiculed, quotation a few months back:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.
Geoff Pullum at Language Log wrote in Rumsfeld's defense (at least as far as the logic and clarity of this particular quotation go), and even compared it to the first line of an old Persian saying:
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.
So now in this Disney movie is another instance of someone talking about what we don't know that we don't know, and understanding it doesn't seem to have caused people any trouble--indeed, when I searched for the line on the Internet to make sure I got it right, I found it on a site devoted to "Cool Quotes". I also found the phrase "you never knew you never knew" in the title for a session in a seminar, in a list of facts about dogs, a page of tips for digital imaging , and several other places that I won't bother to list.

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