Sunday, June 13, 2021 :::
This post was going to start with a discussion of prescriptivism versus descriptivism and semantics in general, but that's a different essay (which I intend to write, but not soon) and felt like throat-clearing in this context. Today I want to note a few words that I see used in ways that lack a nuance that I think the words ought, in some sense, to have. I'm not a hard-core adherent to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I worry that people using these words too generally in some cases inculcate the conflation of importantly different ideas. (Perhaps ironically, in two of the cases I will treat verb and noun forms of the words together, not really bothering to distinguish between them.)
- I don't recall, before a few years ago, seeing constructions like "both teams played each other today", but these days I occasionally do, and it sounds wrong to me. "Both" implies a parallelism, rather than a mutualism; if, speaking of Thing 1 and Thing 2, you can say "both of them [X]" for some verb [X], it is like saying "Thing 1 [X], and also Thing 2 [X]". I don't know whether there are native speakers of American English who disagree with me, but when I see the "mutualism" use of "both" I tend to imagine it's someone who learned English as a second language. While this use sounds wrong and annoying, though, I don't think the distinction it obscures is as important as in the other cases I'm mentioning in this post.
- The word "hoard" derives from a middle English word applying only to dragons and gold, which you haven't heard before because I just made it up. I do believe it generally evokes something like a dragon sitting on a pile of gold, and more generally a situation with two key features: 1) whatever is in being hoarded is not being used; it is just sitting there, and 2) what is being hoarded has been pulled out of circulation of a more-or-less fixed stock. If the best football teams recruit players who are pretty good, but not good enough to make their own team, especially with the intention of keeping them off of opposing teams, that looks like "hoarding" to me. If the players are going to get substantial playing time, that's not hoarding. If a collection consists of things that the owner itself produced, it ipso facto lacks the second characteristic of hoarding; in the case of a football team, if the players it recruits aren't a lot better than players other teams recruit, but it's a lot better at player development, it similarly is not "hoarding" good players. I think this is an important distinction: not all collections, or even large collections, are "hoards"; "hoard" implies something importantly different.
- I, like many other people, jocularly use the word "bribe" to refer to situations in which I provide some incentive to my child to do something, particularly something he in some sense "should" do on his own. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that an "actual" bribe involves inducing someone to violate a duty of some sort to a third party, typically one for which the bribee is acting as an agent. I occasionally see the word used to disparage voluntary exchange that deserves no disparagement, and certainly not for inducement to violate a fiduciary duty.
The following two words are different from the preceding three, in that I don't believe that the words do make a distinction when used as I perceive "correctly", but I want to note that they take in very diverse concepts that deserve a distinction, with the same Sapir-Whorf risks of conflation.
- You may believe it rare, and you may believe it should be illegal, but creating a market between voluntary sellers and buyers of sex is a quite different activity from holding someone as a sex slave to be rented out.
- A prospective mother choosing her sperm donor on the basis of perceived superiority of genetic stock is worlds different from forcibly sterilizing "imbiciles". The word "eugenics" often seems to be pulled out in contexts closer to the former to intentionally conflate them with the latter; somehow when "eugenics" went out of vogue some of the opprobrium justly attached to state violations of human rights, which should have gotten stuck to other state violations of human rights, instead got stuck to other kinds of "eugenics".
::: posted by dWj at 2:14 PM