Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for March, 2008

Guilt by Association

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

I am surprised that this expression is not heard more in the news, aside from the rock group so named. It has become the sole basis of argument for the US news media this week in their attempt to create a scandal out of nothing and besmirch the character of Senator Barack Obama.

The lowest form of attack—as opposed to any form of argument or proof—is to accuse someone of a belief held by someone else they just happen to know. We should have learned this lesson from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s use of guilt by association in his attack on the First Amendment via the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 50s.

The purpose of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was to root out “Communists” from the US society. It succeeded in destroying the lives of thousands of decent Americans in that pursuit and its primary tool was guilt by association.

People lost their jobs and reputations, not because they were members of the Communist Party or ever had been, but because they were seen in the company of a member of that party at one time or other. Often they didn’t even know at the time that the associate in question was a member of the Party.  But if you stand beside a Communist, you must be one, right? That is guilt by association.

How absurd. It is just as absurd to conclude that because Senator Barack Obama attends the church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that he must agree with everything the right Reverend utters. So why were Reverend Wright’s truthful if mildly provocative comments even repeated in the news? Why should Senator Obama feel compelled to respond to a scurrilous attack on his character from the US press, based solely on guilt by association?

To stoop to creating scandals using guilt by association lowers the press into the debilitating mire of Dark Ages. We can only hope that it will somehow retain the strength and light to eventually pull itself out of that mire.

Guilt by association is a phrase none of us should forget or misunderstand. The news this week was not the words of Reverend Wright, but the rearing of the ugly head of guilt by association, a news item no one heard about anywhere—save here.

Meaningless Names

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Robyn Rishe was puzzled by a comment in my treatment of Oscar a few weeks back. She wrote:

“I am puzzled by your comment about today’s word, Oscar, that ‘like all proper nouns, it is a lexical orphan’. When I was in China, people often asked me what my name meant, because in Chinese all names have a meaning. I always assumed that somewhere way back in history, that was true of our names too. Otherwise, what are they? Random sounds?

Oscar“The comparison with Chinese brings up a second point—that you are ethnocentrically speaking of names with a European history only. What does Hillary Clinton’s name mean? Nothing, because it is European? What does Barak Obama’s name mean? I don’t know what its derivation is, but definitely not European. Does it mean something in another language? What does John McCain’s name mean? John goes back at least to Hebrew. Does it have a meaning there?”

The short answer to the question is, no, proper names do not have meaning in the sense common nouns have; they merely refer to objects. To understand this answer, however, we have to understand the difference between a word’s meaning and what it refers to.

When linguists use the term “meaning”, they usually have in mind a class of things, actions, or qualities associated with the word’s sound. Thus bird does not refer to one or two birds that hang around our back yard, but to an open-ended class of avians that differ significantly.

At the end of the 19th century Gottlob Frege demonstrated how the meaning of a word differs from what it refers to, its reference. His examples included the phrases morning star and evening star. These are, of course, two different phrases that have two different meanings. Morning and evening are different words with radically different meanings. However, they refer to the same thing: Venus—not even a star!

Now, if meaning and reference are distinct aspects of a word, then we should find words with meaning but no reference and words with reference but not meaning—at least, that would be ideal. Guess what? We find both.

Words with meaning but nothing to refer to include Martian, ghost, unicorn, gryphon, among many others. Most of us have a mental image of what a ghost is, but there is nothing in the real world for it to point to.

Words with references but no meanings include proper nouns. What is the meaning of Jim? Well, I know which person in my life it refers to but that person is not its meaning. I cannot answer the question, “What does a Jim look like?” “A Jim” makes no sense since Jims do not form a mental class like birds do. I can answer the question, “What does a bird look like?” That is because I have a concept of a class of bird objects.

Now, let’s get back to Oscar. I can answer the question, “What does an Oscar look like?” But my answer will be a description of the statuette, not a description of my Uncle Oscar. That is because Oscar® has become a common noun with the meaning “a statuette awarded for excellence in the motion picture making”. It now has a meaning and a reference, like all common nouns.

One final note for those who have waded this far with me. We should not confuse a word’s etymology with its meaning. The etymology of the name Cooper is that it comes from a word meaning “barrel-maker” and is based on the word hoop. However, “barrel-maker” is not the meaning of the name Cooper today because few if any Coopers make barrels. Cooper is a name without meaning even though it does have an etymology that leads to a word with meaning.

Fractally Wrong

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.Chris Stewart, a long-standing e-friend in South Africa who loves language as much as I, brought to my attention today a phrase created by Keunwoo Lee in October of 2001. At the time, Mr. Lee was a graduate student in the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. According to Mr. Lee (personal communication), “The term was inspired by a sequence from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon wherein one character is observed to have had a ‘fractally weird’ life.” The phrase I find interesting is fractal wrongness and Lee defines it thus:

fractal wrongness
“The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person’s worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person’s worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.”

“Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person’s opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one. It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.”

“If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person, . . . your best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any replies, thus saving yourself time.”

This phrase impresses me because I have known several people who wandered into my life suffering from the malady it labels. I have broken off friendships with the comment, “I’m tired of your pretending to argue with me.” My thought was that some people argue; others merely pretend to. The latter live in the safety of fixed convictions and see argument as a defense of those convictions rather than as a test of them, a test which is a requirement for a healthy Self.

I’m thinking now that such people are not pretending to argue but are fractally wrong about everything and are comfortable in their wrongness so long as their corporate and political leaders agree with them on most if not all points.

You can tell a fractally wrong person that the world is round and they might respond that it is a square, flat plate resting on the back of a turtle. You think that you can convince them that you are right, so you ask, “So how is it that people can start out in Philadelphia, travel in a straight line, and end up in Philadelphia?” “They are confused and don’t remember turning around,” could be the reply.

You might persist with, “So why does the Earth cast a round shadow on the moon during an eclipse?” They might respond, “Everyone knows that light traveling through space rounds off corners.” You don’t have time to waste disproving that.

Finally, you know how to pin him or her down: “OK, if the Earth is resting on the back of a turtle, what is the turtle standing on?” And, as the fabled student of William James once responded to the identical question from Professor James, you might hear, “Oh, no, you can’t catch me there: it’s turtles all the way down!”

OK in War and Urban Myth

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Michel Delaye today asked about an explanation of OK that has been floating around for a long time. Michel wrote:

“I’ve been told an other story [about OK]: during the War between the States, OK was written for 0 (zero) K(illed)on the daily casualty report. I’d be pleased to have your opinion on this unusual explanation.”

This story is what we call a linguistic “urban myth”. It seems to make sense but has a fatal flaw: the first published instance of “OK” appeared in 1839, 22 years before the Civil War began. Moreover, words always circulate several years before they are published.

OKThis explanation is in a class with the tale that posh oritinated from a stamp on first-class tickets from England to India and stood for “port out starboard home”. Apparently, the right side of the ship was out of the morning sun on the way to India and the left side, on the return trip. The problem with this story is that even though many such tickets have been preserved, none contain any such stamp or lettering and no other printed evidence of this abbreviation has been found.

One other linguistic myth you might encounter is the claim that the English adjective gaudy is an eponym of the Spanish architect Atoni Gaudi. Again, the problem is timing: the English adjective gaudy has been in print since 1540 and it appears in the Canterbury Tales (ca 1386) with a different meaning.

Always come to Dr. Goodword for your etymologies.