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

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Thu Dec 7 20:05:36 EST 2006

>>>> 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.

>>> 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.

I am saying, I think, that it's a process, not an event, in each case.  The
partial loss of the idea may lead to the partial loss (the shift to a
slightly altered meaning, perhaps) of the word, and once the word has
shifted it becomes progressively less likely that the idea will be aired or
considered, because it is difficult to have any sort of discussion of
something for which one has to define the term every time it comes up.  (In
the same way that sales of Liebfraumilch increase when it's on a shelf from
which people can pick it up and take it to the counter, rather than having
to ask for it!  I kid you not: if they can't pronounce it, they don't ask
for it, they buy something else instead.  The canny lads in the local
off-licence, whom we've mentioned in an obDWJ context as "the nice boys
from the wine shop", doubled the sales when they spotted this and moved the
stuff out to an accessible shelf.  And some of us, like me, can't even
spell it reliably.  *sigh*)

>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.

I am not talking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, because I have more
sense than to argue with you in a field in which you're throwing references
I don't know, about an hypothesis with which I am not familiar...  I'm also
not talking about external decision to declare some noun taboo in the hope
that if people aren't allowed to say it they won't think it -- that quite
obviously hasn't ever worked, because all that happens is that the people
who think it find some other word to use as a substitute.  (An example
would be the various playground insult-terms for someone with a twisted leg
or a slower-than-average grasp of school subjects: those terms move on
faster than they can be banned, almost, and last time I looked teachers
were struggling to cope with "he's just sad".  How can one reasonably
forbid children to use the word "sad"?)

>> "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.

I was actually meaning, quite specifically, that the word for "I know
enough about both sides of this question not to be prepared to come down
entirely on one side or the other, and have no interest (vested or
otherwise) in supporting one or other view to the exclusion of the other"
-- "I am a disinterested party" -- is now used as if it might mean "I am
not amused by this and so have neither information nor opinion about it".
One can be disinterested and still have an opinion; if one is uninterested,
it is likely that one won't have any particular opinion (or that if one
voices an opinion it will be uninformed codswallop).  An example might be:
I am uninterested in football and have no opinion about the relative merits
of Arsenal and Chelsea football teams; someone who is fascinated by
football but *supports* Tottenham Hotspur may have a quite disinterested
opinion as to which of Chelsea or Arsenal is the *second* best team in

(If it is a canard to say that "disinterested" means "unbiased by personal
interest", it's a false rumour or hoax that's been around ("now always")
since 1659 according to the 1933 S.O.D., and continues to be given in the
1998 edition, so I think I'll allow it the benefit of the doubt and
continue to associate "disinterested" with "objective" or "impartial"
rather than with "bored by" or "uninterested in" -- a meaning that predated
the other by some fifty years but fell into -- what was that word of
Roger's? -- desuetude for enough generations for me to feel I don't have to
apply it.)

I would draw a distinction between "disinterested kindness" and
"uninterested kindness".  The one would be, to me, a kindness that does not
stand to gain any immediate advantage for the one showing it; the other,
that sort of casual and uncaring kindness that is like a slap in the face
to the recipient.  The one implies that the person showing it has noticed
the object of it but has no personal reason to bother about them, just does
it anyway; the other that s/he hasn't really noticed them at all and
*doesn't* actually bother about them, just does for them what is needed to
get them out of the way.

At the moment, if someone uses "disinterested" there is a fair chance that
they mean "couldn't care less" rather than "cares but without being
partial".  Since I cannot know which they mean unless I quiz them about it,
which if they're a newspaper columnist I can't easily do, I cannot judge
whether their opinion of the person they have called "disinterested" is
favourable or unfavourable; the word has ceased to have any real meaning,
at that point, since it is ambiguous to the point of futility.  So it isn't
forming communication between persons, and if communication ain't what
language is about (whatever the theorists whose work I haven't read may
say) I can't think what it *is* for.

(The side-swipe that has confused you, or I think has confused you, was at
the notion that it's somehow such a a good thing to be unbiased that it
outweighs that lack of bias being because of complete ignorance, and that
thus complete ignorance lends weight to uninformed opinion because that
opinion is at least unbiased.  It may be totally nit-witted or completely
wrong, but it's unbiased, well whoop-de-do...)

>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.

I'd certainly agree that there's coercion other than linguistic in Nineteen
Eighty Four!

>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.

You're only mere sometimes, Colin.  <grin>  In fact I haven't caught you
being particularly mere for ooh, years now.

Feminising language isn't what I was on about either.

That of which I write is not deliberate manipulation, which is what all
your examples, as far as I can make out, have at their root.  I mean the
carelessness that does not draw a distinction between "careen" and
"career", or "militate" and "mitigate", and so forth, and by casual abuse
of the language removes from circulation words for which there is no
substitute with that precise meaning.  And yes, I do know that very few
people these days need to put a ship over on her side in order to clean her
hull of weed, but if they do, they don't want it to be assumed if they
write about it on a postcard that the vessel was rushing down the
high-street in an uncontrolled manner, nor even careering down the slipway!
And that's just a verb, not an idea.

>> 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?

Does it matter, if in the end one cannot say "I care for you" without it
having a negative connotation that stifles the impulse at birth, and the
dying father (who would shy away embarrassed from "I love you") is left
uncomforted (though fed and washed)?


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