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The wheat from the chaff

[ 2011-07-08 15:06]     字号 [] [] []  
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The wheat from the chaffReader question:

Please explain “distinguish the wheat from the chaff” in this sentence - Many of us become unwilling to take the mental and spiritual effort required to distinguish the wheat from the chaff of what we’re hearing.

My comments:

The wheat stands for the good and valuable, the chaff the bad and worthless.

To paraphrase the speaker, we don’t know what’s good for us. We believe in hearsay – We hear others say and believe it without questioning.

Many of us are like that, says the speaker.

Most of us as a matter of fact.

Granted, that society trains us not to ask uncomfortable questions. Hence we are wont to take things for granted. But most of our problems, the way I see it at any rate, are self-inflicted.

All of our problems in fact, if you think a bit about it.

The point is we can’t blame for society for our problems – potential ignorance in this case. Society is what it is and many people say there’s nothing we can do about it.

Well, that’s probably true that we as insignificant, anonymous individuals can’t do much about society at large. But that’s neither here nor there because we as individuals should not be looking to change society as our primary goal in the first place. What we should set as a goal is to change ourselves – become a better informed individual and every day become a better person.

And we can do something about that, can’t we?

Alas, the truth is, we can’t.

Because doing so requires effort, both physically and in spirit. Yet to break out of the old cocoon is not easy - especially not easy for us humans^_^. It’s challenging, uncomfortable, often risky. And most of us have become lazy anyway, and very much like to go with the flow and roll with the punches.

Over time and by habit, we’re no longer able to think for ourselves and are fine with it, unwilling to make any attempt at change.

The long and short of it is, we now hear things from the radio, television and the mainstream media in general but we can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, truth and trash.

Or as the speaker puts it, we can’t “distinguish the wheat from the chaff”.

Chaff is the outer protective casing of a grain of wheat. Chaff is inedible and therefore farmers always have to remove the chaff from the wheat by threshing before eating the sweat wheat.

It is this practice that gave rise to the idiom “distinguish the wheat from the chaff” – or the more commonplace “separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Metaphorically speaking, the wheat represents anything that’s good whereas the chaff represents the bad.

Here are two examples, both from The Economist magazine:

1. THERE are few divisions of the book industry with a worse reputation than business publishing. Hundreds if not thousands of business books come out every year, all with glowing press releases and effervescent puffs. Literary editors tend to consign them straight to the bin.

This is understandable. An astonishing number are worthless. Celebrity CEOs blow their trumpets, consultants market miracle cures, self-help gurus promise that you can grow rich by working four hours a week. Wait a few months: the CEOs have been caught with their hands in the till, the miracle cures are poisons, the self-help gurus bankrupt. What remains is a tangle of jargon-ridden prose.

Understandable but wrong. It is silly to dismiss a whole genre just because so many business books are bad. There are some excellent titles in among the dross: CEO biographies that capture something essential about business, useful prescriptions for restoring companies to health, even self-help books that help make sense of the contradictory pressures of modern corporate life. The average employed person in the West spends more waking time in the office than at home, so it makes no sense to be so dismissive of writers who focus on such an important activity....

Companies and consultancies will buy thousands of books to flatter their CEOs or market their latest “breakthrough” ideas. The temptation for publishers to churn out rubbish should be resisted. Business is going through a particularly fascinating phase, as new technologies disrupt long-established business models, new economic giants shift the balance of economic power and new gurus, many of them from emerging markets, reinterpret the landscape. The need to separate the wheat from the chaff has never been greater.

- Business books: Aiming high, The Economist, June 30, 2011.

2. “AN EDITOR is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff,” said Adlai Stevenson, a perpetual American presidential candidate. Sadly, his words also apply to economic and financial commentary. Economic writers love to use—and abuse—jargon; and, to give their dry discipline more appeal, they resort to tired but lurid metaphors. This can confuse the reader; at worst, it misleads. So in the interest of self-improvement we are introducing an occasional series: beating the jargon. Suggestions from readers are welcome.

This week we focus on financial babble. As any self-respecting financial journalist knows, stockmarkets never simply decline or fall, they shudder, swoon, haemorrhage, crash, plunge or sink in a river of blood. That is, of course, unless they are subject to profit-taking or a correction, which happen when the writer has recently predicted they will surge, soar, balloon, burgeon and so forth.

Periods of falling share prices, such as this summer, bring forth much talk of meltdown, bloodbaths and volatility. Oddly, however, share prices are “volatile” only when they are falling. When they start rising again, they have “stabilised”, rallied, bounced or sprinted to safety—implying that such rises reflect economic fundamentals. Thus crazy gains in share prices are perversely viewed as “stability”, while a drop to more realistic levels is seen as instability. This reinforces the dangerous view that huge rises are normal and sustainable.

A related abuse is that recessions tend to be described by businessmen and politicians as cyclical downturns, while economic booms are never cyclical expansions. This is convenient: bad times are the fault of impersonal economic forces; good times the result of far-sighted human decisions.

At its least flamboyant, financial jargon is a stock of glib phrases that provide ready-made explanations for any given turn of events. For example, suppose that new figures show that growth is faster than expected. If share prices rise, analysts will point to “hopes of stronger profits”. If share prices fall, they blame “fears of higher interest rates”. Economists, they say, try to tell you where you are going by looking in the rear-view mirror. Financial scribblers simply reach for the cliché in the glove compartment.

- Bubble babble, The Economist, December 3, 1998.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)