Thursday, October 06, 2005

Petitio Principii

As I’ve said before, Sam Madonia is at his best when he’s discussing state and local politics with someone in the know. On Monday, that someone was Kent Redfield, professor of political studies at UIS. The conversation was interesting and insightful as the two discussed the Republican candidates for governor. But Madonia brought the discussion to a screeching halt, if only to my fastidious ears, by committing a language faux pas that I find particularly irksome.

Dear reader, “begs the question”, contrary to increasingly common assumption, does not mean “raises the question” or even “provokes the question.” It has its own unique and useful meaning. Begging the question is a fallacy in deductive reasoning that occurs when a person attempts to support his argument with a premise that assumes to be true the point that she is arguing for.

For example, a person attempting to prove that helmet-less motorcyclists are stupid by stating that you’d have to be stupid to ride a motorcycle sans cranial protection is “begging the question.” Discussing certain issues that raise larger or different issues is not “begging the question.” But unfortunately this second erroneous meaning is becoming the more common usage and some dictionaries are even acknowledging it as correct.

What bothers me most isn’t that “begs the question” has acquired a secondary meaning, it’s the reason behind its entry into the everyday vernacular. People who use it in place of the perfectly adequate “raises the question” do so, it seems, because they think it makes them sound more intelligent. This is the equivalent of demonstrating comportment by coordinating the spittoon cozy with the rest of the sitting room’s décor.

For some reason, the misuse is common in relation to politics. During the last gubernatorial election, I was compelled to email the Blagojevich campaign in response to their candidate’s insistence that questions were being begged all over the political landscape. The point of my missive was either lost on the campaign hack who responded to my email, or he was a dyed-in-the-wool descriptionist on matters of language.

When the issue turns to linguistics, there are basically two kinds of people: prescriptionists and descriptionists. The former believes that there should be a normative set of rules governing language. The latter believes that the study of language should simple describe how language is used. For fans of the Princess Bride, Vizzini is a descriptionist when he describes as “inconceivable” any occurrence that deviates from his preconceived plans during the kidnapping of Princess Buttercup. Indigo Montoya reveals a prescriptionist side to his character when he chides Vizzini over his choice of words by saying “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I am by no means a strict prescriptionist, some of whom can be dictatorial in their belief that a word’s meaning should hold steadfast throughout time. Nor do I associate too closely with the descriptionists who are the hippie-freelove, “if it feels good, do it” faction of the linguistics community and believe that a word’s meaning should be always evolving according to populist usage. I fall somewhere between the two camps, but I do see a greater danger to our language coming from the descriptionist side.

Take the word “fey” as an example. Its original meaning is “fated to die” or “foreboding of death or calamity.” It doesn’t conjure up happy thoughts. But because it’s such a precious-sounding little word, “fey” has also taken on a secondary meaning of “precious.” And because it rhymes with “gay”, which in addition to meaning “happy” is also used to describe homosexuals, “fey” is also used to describe someone who is “campy.” So imagine if you will a picture of Jesus Christ on his way to the cross at Calvary, being escorted by a prancing Shirley Temple on one side and a flitting Charles Nelson Reilly on the other. That all three could accurately be described as “fey” is confusing and carries with it a huge burden that I’m not sure the tiny word is up to.

While some words get tagged with unrelated meaning as the result of prevalent misuse, others face extinction. The word “gantlet” once described a punishment where the offender ran between facing rows of punishers who would inflict bodily harm upon the offender as he passed. But because so many people confused this word with “gauntlet”, a glove that is thrown down to signify the issuance of a challenge, gauntlet is now commonly used to express both meanings and gantlet is reduced to “alternative spelling” status.

While I find the loss of a good word lamentable, I do advocate the invention of new words in certain types of writing. For this to work, the meaning of the word must be obvious based on its derivation and the context in which it is used. This works well in comedy and some of its greatest practitioners write for the Simpson’s.

My favorite Simpsish word is “embiggen”, as in “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” “Craptacular” is another good one. A whole glossary of words created for the show can be found here.

I’m by no means a language expert; look closely enough and you'll probably find an error or two in this unedited post. Nor do I kneel too religiously at the altar of Strunk and White. I'm just a moderate prescriptionist in a world of flaming descriptionists who are content to sit idly by as our once proud language sinks into an unintelligible hodgepodge of acronyms and emoticons. And while this may be an insufficient pulpit from which to prevent the further decay of the phrase "begs the question", I will say this for my humble little blog: It's real and it's craptacular!


Anonymous said...

You have given me an opportunity to weigh in on a current, local controversy--the flying of the stars and bars at Camp Butler.

My all-time favorite made-up word (or term, as it were) is Kurt Vonnegut's "chronosynclastic infindibulum" (from the Sirens of Titan) which, as I understand it, is a place or state of being where all versions of the truth fit together so that all sides can be right and therefore there is no "wrong" point of view.

It fits my feelings about the contoversy to a "T"---to me, both sides have valid arguments, so why not compromise and meet in the middle to reach the "truth"--like allowing the stars and bars to fly at the dedication and then on Memorial Days that follow.

Thanks for the column--I liked it--but I still do not understand the correct meaning of "begs the question" My personal teeth-grinder is when I hear someone say "chomping at the bit" AARGH! Also staunch for stanch is misused.

Tip for all unmarried men: If you get married, don't ever correct your wife on any of that stuff. You will go hungry, and do without a lot of things. That begs the question.......what kind of idiot would do that in the first place?

Mike Wilson said...

Jeezy Creezy, I'm not a huge Madonia fan, but cut the guy a little slack. It's tough running a three hour show (does Sam do three, I never listen?) without screwing up some bit of the English language.

I do love a good mixed metaphore, though, "tight as a bullfrogs drum" "does the pope crap in the woods" these are some favs. Sometimes they are meant to be funny, othertimes not so much.