Sunday, March 07, 2010

An Ode to Maybe

     There is this wonderful class of words that denote uncertainty, that allow one to convey that something is unassured, that are just wonderful.  I use them all the time, because they are useful, and because they are powerful.  But for as good and as powerful as these words can be, they can also get one into an awful lot of trouble.
    Words like "maybe."  "Might." "Possibly."  I would even be willing to throw "I'll try" into that group.  Strictly defined, "maybe" means perhaps.  Hmmm...that's no good, and I am not making that up.  If I were to write that up like it was a dictionary entry it would just have three words: "maybe," "adverb," and "perhaps."  For serious.  If I go look up "perhaps" and it just says "maybe" I will be royally pissed, but you know what?  I'd have to admit that was pretty good, and I'd have to give a bunch of respect points to Daniel Webster or whoever wrote the dictionary.  I am just kidding, it wasn't Daniel Webster.  It was Emmanuel Lewis who wrote the dictionary, everyone knows that.  So let us see what perhaps has to say:

perhaps \pər-haps, praps\ (adv): possibly but not certainly syn: maybe

Well now that is a little better, and by a little better I mean a lot better.  That pretty much spells it out right there, which I suppose is what a dictionary is supposed to do.  And that's how I read it, and by that I mean the word perhaps.  I always look at it as just saying that whatever follows is not a certainty; that it may happen but isn't for sure.  But like I said, it can be so much more.
      Sometimes one will use a word like maybe to put someone back on their heels, or to keep them guessing.  Like when you are totally flirting with a girl and make an advance and she says "maybe."  I hate that.  Or like when someone asks you if you are going to the party and you say "I might."  That's a good one too.
      Another use of this concept in this vein is to make someone get a little stressed out.  Like if you are going to do something for them and you want them to think about how you are helping them out.  For example:  "Hey, Big Dave, are you going to be able to write me that letter of recommendation for Colorado State by the end of the week?" and I answer "Maybe, Unpaid Intern, maybe."  Relax, I'm gonna do it.  But I want the Unpaid Intern to sweat, and just jacking up the thermostat doesn't do the trick anymore because they are used to it.  Anyway, you can use that concept to do that.  "I might be able to get the done for you by Thursday." even though it would only take you like an hour if you really put your mind to it.
     Some people do the exact opposite, and use it to lead people on when there is no chance in hell of something happening.  "Yeah, maybe we will come to your baby shower, insufferable work friend of my wife's."  "Are you going to come to my graduation party, girl that I have had a crush on for the last four years?""Maybe, we will see."  Trust me, I am from the Midwest, I've played these games for a long time.
     I've played the game a lot of times because another great thing about "maybe" is that it can absolve one of potential sins.  If you never actually commit to anything you can't really not come through, now can you?  That's the part that most people like about maybe.  That's why everyone uses "perhaps, perhaps, perhaps."
      But generally no, that's not how we wield the sword of possibility most of the times.  Most of the time we just don't know, so that's why we don't commit.  Pure and simple.  Maybe it's too far out.  Maybe we just aren't sure.  That's why it is unfortunate when people read "maybe" as a metaphysical certitude.  "Oh, so where were you at the fair last weekend? I thought you were going to be there."  No, ass plow, I said we might go but then my youngest son had to go play in a basketball tournament.  I never committed.  I am sad that you are so unfamiliar with the concept of uncertainty.  It's not that I didn't want to go to the fair, but sometimes stuff happens.
     So let's remember that maybe means maybe, and nothing more.  Not for sure.  Not never.  It means perhaps.  I means uncertainty.  It means possibility.  That's it.  That's how I am going to use it from now on; I'm going to cool it with all the maybe-related bullshit.  Maybe.

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