• SETH ON LANGUAGE 31.08.2014

    One can never speak the same language twice. It’s always changing and every time you dip your lips into it, one of your words means something slightly different from what it used to indicate to your audience. I admit that I am a resister. I do not like that words so often lose their meaning because of what is most cathartically described as laziness.

    I realize that the words that I and others wish to protect are themselves probably corrupted versions of prior definitions that were once jealously guarded by previous linguistic conservationists. And I recognize that language comes to mean what we understand it to mean, and so if the ever-changing lexicon continues to carry with it the power of communication such that we can semi-accurately read each other’s thoughts when we put sounds in the air, or symbols on paper, then it is difficult to prove my and others’s suspicion that the alterations significantly harm society.

    That is all fine and melancholy, but there is one piece of language that I believe deserves extra protection because it has lost its meaning illegitimately. When I was in university studying philosophy, I met a professor—let’s call him Beggins, since I don’t remember which of my teachers he was—who introduced me to my favorite expression of all time:

    PROFESSOR BEGGINS: So, when people quote Plato to me, I feel that they are, in a sense, begging the question that I give a damn about what that self-righteous pupil of Socrates had to say. Questions?

    SETHBLOGS: Excuse my ignorance, Professor, but what does it mean to be “begging the question”?

    BEGGINS: Dear me, you don’t know what it means to beg a question?

    SETHBLOGS: Not so much, no.

    BEGGINS: Well, my good lad, I think you will find it a very useful phrase: it refers to occasions where you are in a debate, let’s say about whether Plato ever uttered a useful word in his life, and in response to your contention that he did not, your opponent says, “Of course he did because, after all, Plato had so many wonderful things to say.”

    SETHBLOGS: So?

    BEGGINS: Do you not see? Your opponent has laid claim to a conclusion that takes for granted the answer to the very issue that is in dispute. It is the equivalent of attempting to prove that God exists by noting that the Bible says he does.

    Beggins’s example led my intrigued brain to recall a recent conversation I’d had at a party:

    —-JEN ACQUAINTANCE: How come you’re not drinking?

    —-SETHBLOGS: I’m not really into drinking.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Why?

    —-SETHBLOGS: I don’t really like the idea of my brain being messed with by a foreign substance.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Oh.

    —-Awkward silence.

    —-SETHBLOGS: Um, and also, I hate the taste of alcohol.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Oh yeah, I hate it, too—so you just have to make yourself get used to it, and you’ll be fine.

    —-SETHBLOGS: But that assumes I want to acquire the taste.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Of course you do! Everyone wants to drink. It’s fun!

    —-SETHBLOGS: But I’ve told you I disagree with that. Don’t you need evidence beyond just saying that everyone likes it?

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Well, I’m entitled to my opinion, aren’t I?

    —-SETHBLOGS: But—

    The professor beamed as he witnessed me coming to his conclusion.

    SETHBLOGS: Wow, yes, I hate it when people beg the question.

    BEGGINS: As you should.

    SETHBLOGS: So, forgive my continued ignorance, but where did this invaluable expression come from?

    BEGGINS: Well it turns out that in a formal debate—in order to hasten the event along one can ask one’s opponent to concede a particular point or “question” that could otherwise be debated. But if one gets greedy and requests the concession of a point that contains the very issue at question in the debate, they are begging that question.

    I was immediately in love. This “begging the question” pointed to something I had experienced (and probably committed myself) many times before, but had never known how to itemize. When someone claimed as self-evident the conclusion at stake in a greater debate, they were begging the question. Brilliant! I now had something to say to combat such philosophical infractions. Imagine, I thought:

    —-SETHBLOGS: But I don’t want to get drunk.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Come on, everyone likes getting drunk sometimes.

    —-SETHBLOGS: I think you’re begging the question there.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Oh… I guess you’re right: I simply re-stated my thesis—which assumed the conclusion that’s in dispute—as if it requires no evidence, even though you’ve already indicated that you disagree with it. I’m terribly sorry.

    —-SETHBLOGS: That’s quite all right.

    How glorious life would be with “begging the question” at my side! We dated for a while, and then I married it into my conversation and told my friends about it. Some companions even liked it as much as I did. But one cruel day that begs for the Kleenex box, some TV or radio personality got an ear on it, and guessed it meant something different from what the philosophy gods had intended. I suspect it happened in a philosophy bar one end-of-term evening:

    PROFESSOR BEGGINS: Socrates had it coming, old boy.

    PROFESSOR RIVAL: Preposterous! He was defending the intellectual discourse.

    BEGGINS: Yes, well, given that he refused to let his friends break him out of jail, his execution was tantamount to suicide. And suicide is wrong.

    RIVAL: What makes you so certain suicide is wrong?

    BEGGINS: Because suicide is the murder of oneself, and murder is wrong.

    RIVAL: Ridiculous: I don’t believe suicide is generally considered murder.

    BEGGINS: That begs the question, old boy.

    JOHN NEWSMAN (eavesdropping to himself): What a lovely phrase.

    RIVAL: No it doesn’t.

    BEGGINS: I think it does.

    RIVAL: Does not!

    NEWSMAN: I’m sorry to interrupt—

    RIVAL: Glad you did.

    NEWSMAN: Thank you. So, why don’t you let him just ask the question?

    RIVAL: What question?

    NEWSMAN: The one that he was begging for.

    BEGGINS (laughing): Very droll, my good fellow.

    NEWSMAN (to himself): Wow, a cool-sounding phrase and it makes people laugh. How charming.

    If only the eavesdropping media had thought to check their internet for the definition of “begging the question,” the phrase could have been spared. Instead, without a philosophical adviser to influence them, various TV and radio personalities went ahead and guessed at the meaning for themselves by translating the words literally:

    JARED AUTHORBY: In my latest novel, I investigate the intersection of gender and curiosity as it relates to hunger.

    JOHN NEWSMAN: That begs the question: what’s your favorite food?

    SETHBLOGS (from the television sidelines): What?!

    AUTHORBY: Well, I like it when my friends eat crow.

    NEWSMAN (chortling): Good one. Your humour begs the question: what’s your favorite joke?

    SETHBLOGS: Oh no! You think “begging the question” means literally that someone has said something that begs (for) a particular question to be asked! No, no, stop that!

    At first it was just the occasional television and radio pundit who misused the phrase (in spite of my constant heckling for them to stop), but apparently “question begging” wears with it a certain aroma of sophistication because soon any television or radio personality fond of saying things like, “Frankly,” regardless of whether they were being particularly direct or candid, was suddenly noticing questions being begged (for) all the time:

    SUSAN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think government subsidies have gone too far.

    NEWSMAN: Frankly, that’s an intriguing notion, which begs the question: how far do you think the government should have taken the subsidies?

    It was torture for those of us who loved and cared for the phrase. Eventually, the infestation leaked from the media into the minds of civilians:

    FREDDIE SALESMAN: Excuse me, ma’am, but I notice that you’re looking at this TV, which begs the question: do you have any questions about it?

    JANICE CUSTOMER: Thank you, yes; in fact, your question begs a question of my own: how much is it?

    SALESMAN: That begs the question: do you want quality or do you want to save a few dollars now, and then regret it later?

    CUSTOMER: That begs the answer: quality please!

    SALESMAN: It sure does!

    SETHBLOGS: No it doesn’t!

    And so the original—and I still like to say—“true” definition of the expression has been slaughtered. The other day, I even heard a Yale-educated professor “beg the question” and then ask it. The hostile, yet accidental takeover is nearly complete as those of us who still want to protect the phrase have great difficulty communicating it successfully:

    SETHBLOGS: Professor Beggins, doesn’t that beg the question?

    BEGGINS: All right then, go ahead, my good man.

    SETHBLOGS: No, I meant that the quote you read begs the question.

    BEGGINS: Yes, very good, young man, I’m interested to hear your question. Please proceed.

    So there we are. This useful expression that had once lived obscurely, but precisely and helpfully, in philosophy classes has been kidnapped by greedy newscasters who were not satisfied with the bounty of phrases already available to indicate that a question had been inspired in their brains. What was wrong with “raises,” “provokes,” or “invites” a question?

    POLLY POLITICIAN: We are considering our options regarding gun control.

    JOHN NEWSMAN: Well, that provokes a question—

    POLITICIAN: “Provokes a question”?

    NEWSMAN: Yes, exactly.

    POLITICIAN: That’s a bit humdrum for an important interview, don’t you think?

    NEWSMAN: Why?

    POLITICIAN: It’s a boring segue: give me something with a little more pizzazz.

    NEWSMAN: Like what?

    POLITICIAN: I don’t know: maybe you could abduct a cool phrase from another discipline and use it as though it means “provokes a question.”

    NEWSMAN: Good idea. I tell you what: tonight I’ll go to the nearest philosophy bar to see if I can appropriate a phrase of theirs.

    No, there was no such dearth of segues that explained the pundits’ commandeering of “begging the question.” Instead, it was simple vanity: the abductors enjoyed the sound of the obscure phrase, and so decided to try it on. Such an attempt to curry respect via impressive language instead of high-quality ideas is not new, and is too omnipresent a foe for me to attempt to combat here, but I do note that, where one reaches for an expensive word or phrase without understanding its meaning, one risks identifying oneself as a fraud.

    Years ago, a self-absorbed co-worker struck up conversation with me in our office hallway:

    CO-WORKER: So, what do you do when you’re not working here?

    SETHBLOGS (surprised to be asked and hesitant to answer): I’m attempting to be a writer.

    CO-WORKER (justifying the above hesitation): Oh, yeah? I’m a writer, too.

    SETHBLOGS (impressed with how quickly the snob brought the topic to himself): What do you write?

    CO-WORKER: Poetry.

    SETHBLOGS: Cool: do you have a particular genre you focus on or—?

    CO-WORKER: No, I want my poetry to be for everyone: I don’t want it to be above anyone. I’m not into that, you know, egalitarian stuff.

    Now, I have no quarrel with someone who doesn’t know what “egalitarian” is. However, if he wants to announce his high-level intellect by using a big word, then his audience may in turn be tempted to judge the truth of his claim by checking to see whether the impressive language was used correctly.

    The great arbiter of expression, George Orwell, argues in “Politics and the English Language” that stringing together prepackaged phrases without fully considering what they mean is a linguistic abomination that generates vagueness of expression and feeble mindedness (and worse, political oppression!).

    Hear, hear! If my favorite expression had lost the monopoly on its words because another worthy concept required those words in particular, I would have accepted the theft of meaning.

    STAR McATHLETE: I wouldn’t take steroids unless I really needed to: after all, as my mistress says, they’re way over-priced.

    NEWSMAN: That makes me want to ask you something, but I’m not sure how to tell you that what you’ve said has provoked a question.

    McATHLETE: Well, if you’re not comfortable transitioning from my statement to your question, then I can’t—in good conscience—answer it.

    NEWSMAN: Fair enough. How to put this? I felt that what you said contained some surprising details—for instance, that you have a mistress—that kind of begged for a question.

    McATHLETE: “Begged for a question”—that’s rather clunky, don’t you think?

    NEWSMAN: Too wordy?

    McATHLETE: Maybe drop the “for” and see if that tightens it up.

    NEWSMAN: Nice.

    If that had happened: if the television personalities had, by their own invention, discovered “begging the question” to be a useful phrase for their interviews and commentaries, I could have accepted the phrase invasion, and moved on. But that is not what happened; instead, the expression has lost its purpose because of an accident of guessing. The vain newscasters, who liked the way the phrase made them feel about themselves, were so sure that it meant what it sounded like, that they helped themselves to its succulent flavor.

    Therefore, against the crime of intellectual laziness and vanity, I will keep fighting. I know that I will fail. The old meaning of my favorite phrase will continue to dissolve into the new one.

    KATEY SONGSTRESS: In this song, I bastardize the word “irony” to mean any old thing, like coincidence or bad luck.

    JOHN NEWSMAN: Begs the question: do you find this interview to be ironic?

    KATEY: Which begs my own question: do you think it’s ironic?

    NEWSMAN: Nicely begged. Which, in turn, begs the contemplation: I wonder where the expression, “Begs the question,” came from?

    KATEY: I don’t know: maybe, in olden days, you had to pay to ask a question.

    NEWSMAN: Interesting, that begs an explanation request: what does buying a question have to do with begging it?

    KATEY: Well, imagine a grocery store in olden times:

    —-OLDEN CUSTOMER: Thanks, I’d also like to get a pack of ten questions, please.

    —-OLDEN CLERK: Sure, you want a bag for that?

    —-OLDEN CUSTOMER: Yeah, bag the questions, please.

    NEWSMAN: Makes sense to me.

    KATEY: It really does, doesn’t it?

    Yes, eventually the former meaning of question begging will simply be a footnote in the mouths of expired philosophers. But for me to retreat because of likely failure would be to beg the question that one should give up the good fight in the face of futility.

    NEWSMAN: Good question, indeed!

    And so the rant begins anew.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 6:45 PM

  • 6 Responses

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    • Tarrin Says:

      Begging your pardon, but I could care less about this issue. I would literally prefer to jump off a bridge than contemplate it further.

      For all intensive purposes I think you need to make a 360 degree change in your life sir!

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tarrin. I enjoyed your entertaining reasoning. However, I think you meant to say that you could care “fewer” about this issue, and you’d prefer not to contemplate it “farther.” Irregardless, an enjoyable comment.

    • Natalie Says:

      Dear Sethblogs,

      I can relate to your annoyance with the misuse of “begging the question,” although I must confess that I did not know the actual meaning either, so I am both a likely culprit and lacking in your extraordinary emotional attachment to this phrase. My personal source of irritation is “disinterested” vs. “uninterested.” Yes, yes, I know, the use of “disinterested” to mean “uninterested” is not a recent bastardization. Originally, it was “uninterested” that meant impartial and “disinterested” that meant indifferent. At some point, their primary meanings switched, with “uninterested” representing indifferent, and “disinterested” both absorbing the meaning of impartial while maintaining its old meaning of indifferent. According to the dictionary, the old meaning of “disinterested” is used by the likes of Jack London, sometimes as a mode of emphasis or to illustrate a process of LOSING interest versus uninterested, which implies a more static state of BEING uninterested. Very well, but I still think that the two different prefixes should ideally function to highlight a useful distinction that also serves to distinguish between the two meanings of “interest” and their opposites. Why do two words with the same root have to also be synonyms? I guess my main source of ire is not conscious “disinterested” users, but unconscious ones. Reading the sloppy blogger, last-minute undergraduate, or pompous idiot passively and unthinkingly use “disinterested,” not for variety, emphasis, or the illustration of a process rather than a state, but because they’ve never been curious enough to investigate the meaning really sogs up my cereal, if you get me.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Natalie. That was a fascinating etymological lesson and conclusion. I agree: it’s unfortunate that many previously distinct words seem to get amalgamated together by unnecessary accidents of guessing, thus costing us useful differentiations. Free-for-all language use, though, seems to be seen by some as creative and therefore an intrinsic good. I see it as a means by which communication loses both its potency and its ability to be criticized. I’ve always been annoyed by writers who use expensive and convoluted language to the point that they sound smart, without having to worry about too much critical analysis, since, after all, few people can understand what they’re saying. In this case, people can use any language they want, and if caught in the act of fallacy, they can plead a different meaning of “their” words.

    • Natalie Says:

      I like your comment about how constant word changes could result in impotent and uncritical language.

      PS – You’ll be perhaps both delighted and appalled to know that certain supporters of the BCTF have chosen to use the phrase “muddle the waters” to criticize the BC government for making the situation with the strike more confusing and difficult than it has to be. Initially I laughed at their misuse of a metaphor that results in a phrase that is at once more literal (so the government is actually confusing the water?! The government hasn’t already inflicted enough pain on teachers and children, so it goes after the water?! Diabolical!) and vague (it muddies the water regarding their actual meaning). However, it is unfortunate that they did not look into the history of their particular wording, which turns out to have a meaning of its own from the 19th century: “To make foul, turbid, or dirty, as in water” (“The Imperial Dictionary,” by John Ogilvie, 1883). As you can see, the supporters of the BCTF missed an opportunity to use this phrase to insult the government at a much deeper level.

    • SethBlog Says:

      That’s funny, Natalie. That poor, muddled water. It probably has no idea which way is up and which way it should flow down now. Hee, hee. I can empathize with phrase mix-ups: my brother and I long believed that the toughness of the world could be emphasized by the expression, “It’s a doggy-dog world.” However, when selecting words with which to fight in public, I think, as you suggest, a quick checking with one’s dictionary is a good idea for muddy phrases.

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