Portmanteau

As a boy, I loved the television series Star Trek (now differentiated from its successor as “the original series”).  Each episode began with a voiceover by Captain James T. Kirk saying, “Captain’s log, stardate…,” which set the stage for the story that was to follow.  Where in the galaxy were they?  What were they up to?  Had they encountered any problems since the last episode?  Was the ship in good shape?  The captain’s log voiceover allowed us to get our bearings, to orient ourselves to the Enterprise crew’s world, to leave our own, if not physically then mentally, and gently wade into another reality.  I am not ashamed to say that when I was young I thought these were actual reports from a band of intrepid space explorers; then again I also thought Samantha Stevens was a witch and US astronaut Major Anthony Nelson fortuitously discovered a 2,000 year-old genie named Jeannie in a bottle when his one-man space capsule, the Stardust One, landed back on Earth far from its planned recovery area, near a deserted island in the South Pacific.  I also believed in an antediluvian garden complete with special trees that made you smart, a naked man made out of clay, a naked woman made out of a rib, and talking reptiles.

I began blogging back in 2008 in support of Barack Obama’s run for the Presidency of the United States.  A catastrophic illness necessitated my resignation from a career in the entertainment industry the previous year, so I put my time and my talents to use supporting his historic candidacy.  After his victory, I turned my attention to social issues, and eventually to religion.  The word blog is a portmanteau — a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel (from ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’) or brunch (from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’); in the case of blog, it derives from the words ‘web’ and ‘log.’ It describes a log (not unlike Captain Kirk’s log) of my thoughts (moods, reminiscences) posted publicly on the World-Wide-Web.  But what is a log?  And why is it called that?

A ship’s log owes its name to a weighted wooden board that, in the days before GPS, speedometers/odometers, and electronic recording devices, was attached to a rope with knots tied in it and thrown off the back of a ship at sea.  The weight of the log would anchor it to a fixed point in the water while the ship moved away from it.  By measuring the length of rope between the ship and the weighted board over an elapsed unit of time, sailors calculated their speed (by noting how many ‘knots’ were between the ship and the weighted board), and also how far they had traveled and how much longer they had to reach their destination.  As the voyage progressed, these measurements were written down by the captain in a book that came to be known as the ship’s log, named after the weighted board.  The captain also would record significant events on the journey such as an attempted mutiny, an outbreak of scurvy, or a particularly noteworthy shore leave or interaction with locals in far-off lands.  This provided accountability to whomever was funding the ship’s voyage since the crew’s recollections of it might be intentionally or unintentionally inaccurate.

Logs are curious things.  The reader takes on an omniscience.  S/he will know the ending before the writer does; s/he might even know that a decision taken or a choice made will lead inevitably to ruin or reward.  A reader might even detect a narrative coherence where there is none, because the writer must let go of narrative structure as the ending is not known at the time of writing.  Aside from fixing typos or grammatical errors, a log allows no retroactive editing and removes from the act of writing any studiously considered reflection.  Apart from minimal research (or observation) to ensure accuracy, it really is the expression of instantly published thought.

In this sense, the written form closest to a log is the diary, but with a major difference — a diary is almost always intended to be private, and from this assumed privacy a diary derives its honesty, its unvarnished recounting of life as it happens.  The writing of a public log on the Web is first and foremost an act of supreme trust, because it exposes the writer to scrutiny; a blogger’s greatest asset is a willingness to be vulnerable.

On the Web, this form of instant and global self-publishing, bypassing editorial boards’ revisions, the interference of a publisher’s politics, “reputation,” or world view, and stylistic fights, made possible by the revolutionary technology of having a software-based ‘Publish’ button at your disposal to replace the entire industry of dead-tree publishing, can really only be likened to the revolution in writing brought about by the 16th century essays of Montaigne.  His tendency to digress into anecdotes and personal reflections touching on a wide variety of subjects was seen as anathema to proper style and scholarship rather than as an innovation; his declaration that, "I am myself the matter of my book,” was seen as narcissistic self-indulgence at the time.  Yet, Montaigne came to be recognized as embodying the spirit of skepticism that began to emerge during the French Renaissance.

Like one of Montaigne’s essays, a blog is autobiographical, since the blogger is the fixed point (the weighted board) by which observations are made.

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