[DWJ] losing words (was Tropes and other such)

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Thu Dec 7 17:58:02 EST 2006

Minnow wrote:
>> Minnow wrote:
>>> Avoiding the problem by simply not using either word or phrase is probably
>>> the only safe way round it all.  The trouble is that the language is
>>> smaller for this, and our choices are reduced each time a good and precise
>>> word or phrase becomes an ambiguous one through misuse.
> and Colin responded:
>> If such attrition were the only process at work, yes. But logogenesis
>> continues apace, however much the curmudgeons might dislike to the results.
> Or dislike the things these words come to mean, like "friendly fire" or
> "liberate" or "democracy".
> What worries me is that the disappearance of a word seems to be related to
> the loss at the same time of the thing the word meant, in at least some
> cases.
You cagily say 'related' but I think you are suggesting that the loss of 
the word (or verbal distinction) somehow trigged the loss of the idea, 
whereas I think it's much more likely to be the other way about.

As various people have said, this resembles the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis 
(which I've never been able to find in Whorf's writings, but see below). 
It often seems to me that the care we are now supposed to take in how we 
refer to groups of people is based on the barmy idea that one can Speak 
Oneself into Right Thinking.
> "Disinterested" meant "informed but unbiased".  It is now used as if it
> meant "I neither know nor care about this matter", or, worse, "this person
> to whom I am applying the word 'disinterested' is uninterested in the
> matter".  At the same time, the *idea* that one may know about a subject
> but not have an axe to grind seems to be falling by the wayside -- and the
> uninformed opinion of a person ignorant in a given field carries weight
> apparently *because* he or she knows frod all about what s/he is talking
> about and so is "unbiased".
I'm not quite sure what you are saying here. At first I thought this was 
a reference to the canard that 'disinterested' means 'unbiased' and not 
'finding no attraction in', but I think you're saying something else, 
about how we regard experts, and not really about language at all. (To 
the degree that it is about language, it is akin to Whorf's example of 
workers treating oil-drums in a dangerous way because they were 'empty': 
Pinker demolishes this argument IIRC).

> Various unfashionable people like T.H. White and George Orwell have
> suggested at one time and another that by removing the word for some
> abstract notion from the language one can in time remove the idea too: the
> ants have no words for "good", "better" and "best" and no apparent feeling
> about the comparitive states in which they may find themselves, and
> Newspeak is classic.
It's interesting that in both Nineteen Eighty Four and The Languages of 
Pao (Jack Vance), though they are ostensibly about engineering societies 
through language, there is considerable non-linguistic coercion going 
on. Read in that way, neither makes a very strong case for Sapir-Whorf.

Native Tongue, which somebody mentioned in this regard, is a different 
case: the change is explicitly effected by language. I found it 
enormously unsatisfactory, because she doesn't give you a hint of how 
this is supposed to work. You're told that Laadan is a women's language, 
and given some blather about vocabulary, but I can't see what is 
supposed to make it so world-changing.  Vocabulary (or at any rate the 
stock of content words) is the most labile part of a language - which 
again was where we came in.
The grammar of Laadan, which I used to have, but must have lent to 
somebody long ago, curse it) is more interesting, with such things as 
attitudinal and evidential sentence particles. But I still don't see how 
it is supposed to have the effect it has.
At one level of course, my objection is akin to complaining of any hard 
science fiction work "But they haven't told us how the maguffin works!" 
But for me it is a different case, because S.H.E. so clearly means 
Something Significant by the 'women's language', and because she gives 
too much information about it.
Blish actually produced some equations for the spindizzy, but he didn't 
publish circuit diagrams, or believe that it was the saviour of mankind. 
(Maybe Campbell and dianetics is a closer parallel).
Perhaps after all, it's just that I'm a mere man.

> If "charity" has come to mean "giving money to an organisation that gives
> food to starving children", what word now means the third of that "faith,
> hope and charity" advocated by St. Paul?  (And when did you last hear
> anyone say that their emotional feeling about another individual amounted
> to "loving-kindness", if that would now be the closest we could come?
> "Caring"?  "I care for him" = "I get an allowance from the State so I can
> nurse him"... and a "carer" is someone paid to provide a service to someone
> who can't do things for himself.  argh... )
Yes, but which went first, the chicken or the word?


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