Thursday, March 10, 2011

The difference between a new use and a misuse

One of the things linguistics nerds like to talk about is language change, such as old words being used in new ways. (See Language Log and its recent obsession with the word "literally.") But sometimes in these discussions, there's a confusion between a misusage and a new usage. For example, this recent piece on The Awl, wherein Paul Hiebert outlines his annoyance with the "reckless" and "unavoidable" use of the word "random" to mean something like "unexpected."
As an adjective, random is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as follows: "Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard." In other words, random is without pattern or objective; it's perfectly unbiased. To judge by the pop-culture usages cited above, however, the word has shifted away from its traditional usage, and now means:

a) Inconsequential
b) Rare, strange, curated
c) Exciting, absurd, capricious
d) Unexpected, arbitrary, silly
e) Outcast, distasteful, unknown
f) Unlikely, unfeasible, impossible
g) Incongruous fun
Paul's definition, to my mind, has some clear overlap with the OED definition (something done with no definite purpose, method or conscious choice is likely to appear unexpected or arbitrary to humans). But in any case, I resist the idea that the "pop-culture" usage of "random" is replacing the original meaning of random; rather, it's extending it. I can say "I had a random impulse to clap my hands" (meaning the impulse was unexpected even to me) or "There were a bunch of random guys at the lecture" (meaning I didn't expect them to be there), and I still know perfectly well what "random" means in the context of "random number generator" or "The prizes will be distributed randomly." The process is similar to other slang extensions of words that retain their original meaning ("cool," "hot," "killer," etc.).

A good indication that this new usage of random didn't arise as a misuse is that, as Hiebert points out himself, it's believed to have arisen in "computer-science geek" culture in the '60s: "[Ben Zimmer] located one of the first colloquial uses of random in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's student newspaper, The Tech, from 1971. Here, the word random as an adjective meant 'Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected,' and as a noun meant 'A person who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time, a person who is there by chance; a person who is not a member of a particular group; an outsider.'" If anyone knows what "random" "really" means, it's comp geeks.

A misuse, on the other hand, is a usage that arises when people guess at the meaning of a word or phrase they don't know, and guess wrong. Often, it's a logical enough guess that the misuse spreads and can overtake the "real" meaning in popularity. This is what happened with the phrase "begs the question," now more often used to mean "raises the question." It also seems to be happening with the word "feminism." I've come to believe that the average (wo)man on the street doesn't know what feminism really means. Due to the concept's bad PR, and the fact that it contains a feminine root, people guess that it refers to the belief that women are better than men. This is a new use, and a common one, but it's still a misuse, just like "begging the question."

It's probably not worth fighting over "begging the question," but I do think it's worth fighting over "feminism," because the misuse isn't just honest ignorance, it's a manipulation with political ends. It tells people that feminism is a crazy fringe movement whose members can be summarily dismissed, when in fact it's just a branch of civil rights.

36 comments:

  1. wait, so what does "begging the question" mean?

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  2. It means making an argument based on an assumption that is under debate. It's a logical fallacy.

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  3. Reading that it's not worth fighting over 'begging the question' comes as something of a shock (picture a gore-covered, mail-wearing Crusader stopping in mid-sword swing to say, "What? You're saying I should stop?").

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  4. Well for example I've told Matt Cozart up there what it means several times before. :) Losing battle!!!!

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  5. huh? i don't remember discussing this. i really didn't know what it meant, and so i asked. and i believe you:)

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  6. You have absolutely asked me at least twice before.

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  7. if so, i forgot. sorry. my memory isn't the greatest.

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  8. No need to apologize. Just goes to show it's a losing battle.

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  9. I'm not really _against_ misuses of the eggcorn/folk etymology kind. I think of them as processes by which borrowed or technical words that are, in the bouba/kiki sense, "wrong" for what they mean get straightened out. Nor am I in favor of extensions as a general principle; sometimes they enrich the language and sometimes they just create annoying ambiguities. (Some of my research is on glasses and other random systems...) I'm skeptical that there are any general principles behind what neologisms enrich vs. clutter up the language. Re question-begging, I feel like the "correct" use is superfluous as to beg the question is to make a circular argument; it is also an unnatural construction because, for ANY other verb than beg, a phrase like "X verbs the q." takes an object Y. (LL has a history of this somewhere...) So in this case I'd be glad to see the original use go.

    (An analogous battle to Q.-begging that was lost in Fowler's time was over "ilk," which orig. belonged in constructions like "McNugget of that ilk," i.e., McNugget of the house of McNugget, and got extended to its present, more useful, meaning by "mistakes.")

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  10. I'm not "against" or "for" one or the other on principle either. I just think it's worth pointing out the difference.

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  11. OED still hasn't surrendered: "4. Erroneously, _that ilk_: That family, class, set, or ‘lot’. Also, by further extension, = kind, sort."

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  12. I guess I think the term "mistake" is somewhat loaded.

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  13. I tried to make it clear that many "new uses" were originally "misuses" that eventually won out. Like you say, often not a bad thing. I'm fighting for "feminism" though.

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  14. I don't think I used the term "mistake," did i?

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  15. Well, fair enough. I meant "misuse" rather than "mistake." Loaded for the same reasons.

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  16. I meant "misuse" to be as neutral as possible. It's an avenue for useful change for sure, but still a distinctly different path from slang extension.

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  17. i just can't even think straight today

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  18. To be ever-so-slightly more substantive: I'm not _entirely_ sure why feminism-the-word is worth fighting for. "Liberals" are now "progressives" and "atheists" would be "brights" if Dawkins had his way -- and are "secular humanists" for several purposes anyway... I haven't thought v. hard about alternative terms but, like, one could argue that most "-ist" words are negative and this hurts feminist. Maybe what's needed is something that ends in -ive?

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  19. Brights? Ugh. I hate the word bright.

    We might need a different word -- if someone can come up with a better one, I support that. But I still think it's useful to point out when people are misusing "feminism" for political ends, as long as it's still in circulation.

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  20. The feminist cause should fairly be included in any term that represents equal rights for everybody, but we need a term that focuses on the gender part.

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  21. Yes, maybe this is harder than I thought. feminarian definitely doesn't work. Maybe what's called for is something ugly/bland like "gender progressive." Renaming has certain advantages, "I'm not a _feminist_ just a gender progressive" makes you sound more moderate even if you have exactly the same views. (cf. "not religious but spiritual") Agree about horribleness of "brights."

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  22. Ah yes, that "spiritual" thing also grates on me! I kind of like "gender progressive" though it's fairly ridiculous. I guess one could say "I fight for gender rights" but some dillholes would probably appropriate it for whining that men are oppressed.

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  23. Well I do think what one needs worst is a term for people like me who are broadly sympathetic to feminist concerns but are also apathetic. If the only people associated with a term are people who really care, then that makes the cause seem more fringe than it is. I vegetate _for_ gender rights rather than _against_ them... to the extent that feminism is a set of views, I'd count as a feminist; to the extent that it's a set of emphases or _interests_, I'm not a feminist at all.

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  24. That makes sense ... saying "I'm a feminist" tends to suggest you're actively fighting for the cause rather than passively supporting it, I suppose.

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  25. I like the word feminism. The dillhole comment I find a little misleading: it almost sounds like you mean men are exempt from oppression, when I suspect what's meant is gender is not the vector by wshich male oppression occurs. I personally tend towrds defining feminism in an extremely broad manner: for me it's synoynmous with critical thinking/incisive analysis; so that for me it's very possible to have an ostensibly feminist take not be feminist if it seems rather lacking in terms of critical nuance/awareness of multiple facets of a given discourse. I like my definition because it makes feminism central to up-to-snuff cognizance, makes feminism central; but I'm guessing my view seems a bit idiosyncratic.

    I hope all's well!

    how many years away are "we" till gay stops meaning same sex attraction alltogether and solely means dumb?

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  26. "it almost sounds like you mean men are exempt from oppression" -- not at all, I just don't think men are oppressed FOR being men, the way Republicans sometimes whine that blacks are racist against whites. It's the whole "Hillary Clinton is sexist" crap line of argument.

    I don't think "gay" will lose the homosexuality meaning anytime soon. (It was an appropriation to begin with of course!)

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  27. Yep--that's what I figured: that you mean gender is unlikely to be the medium of oppression for men--tho I suppose one could say homosexual males (depending on their millieus) would be a countercharge; and for sure transgendered folk. I do believe gay might soon mean dumb--I much prefer your view! It's the main way I hear the word used with students, for example (truetrue that's too small a sample to draw any large conclusion from).

    Hillary Clinton: sexist? I don't get it; potentially racist, sure--but...

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  28. But that's discrimination due to sexuality more than gender, period.

    Yeah don't even try to understand it.

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  29. In the homosexual cases, sure; women to men men are likely f'd over tho via gender.

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  30. well, some blacks are racist against whites, though not to the degree conservatives would have us believe.

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  31. But it's used as a distraction tactic, as if that were the only kind of racism that mattered.

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  32. I mean, Fox News would only bother to call something racist or sexist if it was "reverse racism" or "reverse sexism"

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  33. true. and there's nothing "reverse" about it.

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  34. Very nice work on The Awl, which is why I came here.

    On the difference between a new use and a misuse: catachresis. A deliberate misuse as a matter of style.

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  35. Yes! "Random" is catachresis. Thanks very much.

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  36. I'll fight for begging the question to my last breath.

    Random, pretty much, means random even in the "new" use.

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