Sunday, July 23, 2017

Four Ways To Misuse Words

There are lots of ways to misuse words. Today I’m only going to talk about four. I’m interested in the situation that occasionally arises with emotionally or politically charged terms. It’s been happening for a long time with “terrorist”, we all watched it happen over the last year or two with “fake news”, and yesterday I heard someone say that it’s happening with “gaslighting”, although I haven’t noticed that one myself. Sometimes people talk about the phenomenon by saying “when people say [word] what they really mean is [concept]”. Here the concept is not what you’d expect a dictionary to say the word meant; it’s the concept that applies to the things these people in fact apply the word to. For example:
  • ‘When people say “terrorist” what they really mean is “enemy combatant”.’
  • ‘When people say “fake news” what they really mean is “news unfavourable to me”.’
  • ‘When people say “gaslighting” what they really mean is “saying things I don’t agree with”.’

I don’t think this is usually the best way of putting it, and I think it obscures the distinction between at least four ways of misusing words.

Ignorance: The word conventionally means one thing, but I use it to mean something else, because I’m mistaken about the convention. For example, if I thought that “cat” meant what “octopus” means, and so I said “cats live underwater and have eight tentables”. Or I might think that “fake news” meant what “untrue news” means, and use the term “fake news” to describe any news story I don’t think is true.

Lying: I know what concept the word conventionally expresses, but I use it for things that concept doesn’t apply to because I want to mislead people. For example, I might want people to think that cats live underwater and have eight tentacles, and so I’d say “cats live underwater and have eight tentacles”. Or a news story might come out which wasn’t favourable to me, and so I’d mislead people into thinking it was deliberately made up by saying “that’s fake news”.

Bullshit: I don’t really care what the word means, and I may not know what it means, but I do think that it’d be rhetorically advantageous to apply the word to it so I go ahead and do it. For example, I might have heard people calling stories “fake news” and getting some rhetorical mileage out of it, so I call stories I don’t like “fake news” as well.

Inflation/Defining Down: I know that using the word for something stretches the conventions governing the word without necessarily breaking them, but I use the word anyway because I want people to categorize it with the central cases. For example, I might refer to something as fake news when it was really a result of a combination of sloppy reporting and wishful thinking, because I want people to lump the reporter in with people who deliberately make stories up.

There’s probably some overlap here, and one kind of use might shade into the other. But I think only the first one is properly a case of using a word when what you really mean is something else. Maybe, when people say “when people say X they just mean Y” they’re usually being metaphorical and just mean “when people say X it just means Y”. But maybe not. And there’s a difference between what someone means by a word and what you can infer from the fact they’re using the word. I don’t think people who talk this way always have that distinction clearly in mind. It’s a pretty fuzzy distinction in a lot of cases, so that’d be understandable, but the distinction’s there. I think in at least some cases this is part of the irksome tendency on the part of a certain kind of person to attribute all the ills of the world to the imprecise use of language.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Load Of Rubbish

A crash of rhinos. A parliament of owls. I’m not above leafing through a book of miscellaneous lists once in a while, and such books occasionally have a list of collective nouns. I’ve got views about collective nouns.

Sometimes a collective noun will have become a word in one of the normal ways, and it will be used when people aren’t actually talking about collective nouns, and competence in speaking the language involves knowing what it’s used for. A certain kind of social grouping among lions is called a pride, and a different kind of grouping among ants is called a colony. If you call the lions a colony and the ants a pride then you’re making a linguistic mistake. I’m not sure exactly what kind of mistake it is. I think it’s probably a worse mistake than if you talked about a swarm of sheep or a flock of bees. It’s more or less just unidiomatic to talk about a swarm of sheep, but an ant colony really isn’t a pride. Maybe I’m being too harsh or not harsh enough on one of these kinds of mistake, but the point is that they’re mistakes. You’re flouting the conventions internalized by competent language users if you talk about a pride of ants, unless something very odd is going on.

Anyway, that’s not what a lot of collective nouns are like. Basically what happens is this. People know that there are collective nouns for some things, like lions, ants and bees. Glossing over the fact that a pride of lions isn’t just any old group of lions gathered into the same place at the same time, they notice that lots of things don’t have collective nouns. So they make them up. They make suggestions that are supposed to be fitting or satirical or simply euphonious, and congratulate each other when someone comes up with a good one. It’s a parlour game. As an extension of the parlour game, people will sometimes propose more or less comprehensive lists of the things. They don’t usually catch on, of course. The parlour game produces proposals for established usages, not established usages. Perhaps “murder of crows” is one that caught on. But usually they don’t catch on.

Now, part of the parlour game is that it begins with someone asking “what’s the collective noun for a group of lions/larks/ostriches?” If it was lions, someone could rightly say “a pride of lions”, and they’d be right. That is the established word for a kind of group of lions. You only move to phase two of the parlour game, where people make proposals, if you can’t come up with an answer at phase one. And one thing you might do in phase one is try to look it up. To meet this need, people make lists and put them in the kind of miscellany books I talked about at the beginning of the post. Now, a scrupulous listmaker would do what lexicographers do: look at established usage and see if there is a collective noun being used for a group of ostriches. If there used to be but it’s out of fashion, they’ll let you know it’s archaic or worse. And if there’s never been an established term for a group of ostriches, they don’t put one in the list. Alternatively, the listmaker could piggy-back on the efforts of a scrupulous lexicographer by looking through a dictionary written by one.

But our listmakers are not scrupulous. They want a nice long list with nice funny entries. Unfamiliar entries. So instead of looking at established usage or the records of it found in dictionaries, they copy the lists of proposals made by people who wanted to play the parlour game but had no friends to play it with. I once heard that there was a vogue at one point for sending such lists to magazines, though I don’t know if this is true. So now we have two kinds of lists. Lists of proposals which someone might send in to a magazine as an extension of a parlour game, and the plagiarized lists of lies that turn up in miscellany books.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. We’re all descriptivists now, and in the case of language, when a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. I don’t know if that’s what we ought to say or not. So in the interests of science, I’ll look up “parliament”, “crash” and “exaltation” in the OED, to see if they give a usage meaning a group of owls, rhinos or larks respectively. I’m excited!

Parliament: it does mention “a parliament of owls” as an example of this extended usage:
Parliament definition owls OED.png
The usage of “a parliament of owls” they give is from a book called An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, which is of course a book about collective nouns. (There may be nothing objectionable about the book. I haven’t read it, and as you can see I don’t have a problem with all instances of people writing about collective nouns.) Note that in the definition the OED gives there’s nothing that makes “parliament” any more appropriate to owls than to larks, and it’s less appropriate to either than to rooks, which the lists invariably say come in murders.

Crash: the entry doesn’t mention rhinos at all.

Exaltation: here’s the screenshot so you can judge for yourself:
Exaltation larks definition OED.png
I too can judge for myself, and I’d point out that the OED’s authors have not found any usages which were clearly not in the context of discussing collective nouns, and they also appear to think that the established way of referring to such a group of larks is as a flight. But of course A Flight Of Larks would not have been a good title for James Lipton’s book.

(The entry for “pride”, of course, has a definition as “A group of lions forming a social unit,” and gives several examples of it being used outside the context of discussing collective nouns. It says it’s an extended usage, but that’s probably accurate.)

So the scrupulous lexicographers at the OED present us with a bit of a mixed bag. A parliament can be a group of birds but isn’t specific to owls. A crash of rhinos isn’t a thing. An exaltation of larks is a thing but not to my mind a very honourable one, though your mileage may vary.

Now, up until recently I had the very negative attitude towards this whole collective noun nonsense that astute readers will have detected in the foregoing. However, the other day I saw some medievalists playing the parlour game on Twitter - they were still on a high from a conference in Leeds, where I live, and wanted a collective noun for medievalists - and I must say it seemed like fairly harmless fun. So I don’t know what to think. I guess if all you’re doing is making suggestions, that’s fine. And if you make a really good suggestion at the right time, say you’re at a medievalist conference and you think of a good one for a group of medievalists, then it might end up as an established term like “pride” or “colony”. That's fine too. But don’t make lists of lies, and certainly don’t go correcting someone when they call a group of rhinos a colloquium just because you read somewhere that we’re supposed to call it a crash.