What do you call it when a helpline doesn’t help?

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After 40 minutes waiting on a helpline, I started to question helpline, the word. Hinderline felt more fitting – 1800-THWART. A troubleshooting service that missed its mark. Cold comfort perhaps, but at least my call was important to them.

Better yet, the downtime gave me time to ponder falsehoods, the broken promise of a word’s meaning. A state of not-ness, if you like, where a word like helpline deserves its own un-prefix to quash its semantic ambition. Fun runs, we know, aren’t. A koala bear isn’t, not by the laws of taxonomy. Fireflies are beetles.

Helpline? More like hinderline.Credit: iStock

Misnomers are an offshoot of not-ness. Just as agile politics or reality TV are oxymorons, a marriage of opposites to spawn a paradox. As the muzak played, however, I considered not-ness on a more existential level, the shadowlands of ontology, a branch of metaphysics dealing with being. Or not-being in this case.

Bombay duck, another misnomer, is a fish, say. Yet what about a duck that looks like a duck, waddles and quacks like a duck, but somehow isn’t? Canard, the French for duck, also means a false report, which feels one step warmer. While in 1738, a French engineer called Jacques de Vaucanson, invented a duck, a simulacrum to flap and crap in a duck-like fashion. A teal candidate, in a sense, but not the teal McCoy.

Case by case, any word can be negated. Typical becomes atypical at a pen-stroke, happy turns to unhappy, noble to ignoble, and so on – the yin-and-yang of antonyms. In kindred fashion, neologisms can reflect the source word’s irony, generating snubs like fauxmance, demockracy, or deceptionist – a PA whose role is to block or delay visitors to the CEO (see helpline).

Back in 2018, strong winds in Philadelphia pummelled the city’s umbrellas. You know the sort, the canopy blasted inside-out, or blown off entirely, leaving just the ribs behind, the broken shell. Useless. Pointless. No longer warranting the name umbrella. So what do you call it, asked linguist Mark Liberman, posting the query on his own Language Log.

Trickle turned to flood, as suggestions ranged from dumbrella to umbreleton, umbroglio to bumbershot. The eventual winner used a proven prefix in the shape of un-brella, being a non-brolly, a rain shield built in vain, a tool unfit for purpose. Here was one instance of not-ness, still failing to serve as that overall term we lacked – as I waited. And waited.

Nor did the muzak help. Think Muddy Waters meets Barry Manilow. In fact, the heresy had me recall Nick Cave’s recent outburst, a tirade against not-ness. The singer was responding to a ChatGPT creation of a ballad “in the style of Nick Cave”, initiated by a fan named Mark.

Nick wasn’t pleased. His main beef was less the plagiarism angle than the creation’s soullessness, prompting the original Cave to say, “Songs arise out of suffering. They are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being; it has been nowhere; endured nothing. It has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend.”

It hasn’t, therefore it can’t be. Persuasive as they are, deepfake videos and robot songs are doomed to dwell in the state of not-quite, or the never-truly-will-be. Or just the plain not, like defunct umbrellas or hopeless helplines.

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