Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘language

Word and unword

leave a comment »

I have repeatedly used both the German “Unwort” and the anglicised “unword” in my writings, including in at least two texts dealing with the German far-Left propaganda “Unwort des Jahres”*, which seems set on turning “Unwort” into an unword through abusing the idea for political purposes.

*First in 2020; then, having forgotten that text, in parts of a text from three days ago ([1]).

As I find myself using the word in yet another text, it is time to write something more suitable for linking:

In short, an “Unwort” is a word (“Wort”) of such a character that is best avoided for being too* ugly, nonsensical, illogical, linguistically unsound, or similar. In some cases, an otherwise legitimate word that is simply highly over-used, incorrectly used, or truly offensively used can be included.** Neologisms are particularly likely to be unwords, because they lack a prior history, are often incompetently or unnaturally formed, and are often introduced largely for destructive, euphemistic, political, and/or bureaucratic reasons; and the list of examples below contains several neologisms. (However, being a neologism, alone, does not make a word an unword. Ditto e.g. being a euphemism.)

*There is a natural subjective component. Even the aforementioned Leftist abuse aside, there is likely to be a variety of opinions on what is and is not an unword.

**Note that none of these criteria apply to the aforementioned Leftist abuse; however, it is conceivable that the jury is sufficiently intellectually limited to fail to understand the difference between e.g. “truly offensively used” and “does not fit our agenda”.

However, “best avoided” does not imply banned and under no circumstances does a classification as unword justify the redaction of uses in existing literature, a censoring of speech that discusses the word, or similar. This emphatically includes the likes of “nigger”. (See below for whether “nigger” should be considered an unword.)

To contrast “Unwort” with “Wort”: The German prefix “Un-” resp. “un-”* is a negation similar to (and cognate with) the English “un-” and the Latin “in-” prefixes,** and it is often used in the same manner, e.g to form “unwahr” (“untrue”) from “wahr” (“true”). However, it also has a common use as an augmentative/intensifier, to indicate a sense of general wrongness, to describe something that is not as it should be, or similar—and especially with nouns. We have e.g. “Tier”–“Untier” (“animal”–“monster”), “Mensch”–“Unmensch” (“human”–“bad human”),*** “Ding”–“Unding” (“thing”–“abomination”****), and “Summe”–“Unsumme” (“amount”–“very large amount”). In a twist, these senses can clash. A notable example is “Tiefe” (“depth”, as in e.g. “the depths of the ocean”) and “Untiefe”, where the latter can mean either a shallow (something deep to a very low degree) or an unusually deep depth/abyss (something deep to a very high degree).

*German nouns are capitalized but e.g adjectives are not. For instance, the above “unwahr” has a corresponding noun “Unwahrheit” (“untruth”).

**Of course, there are more than one such prefix in many languages. Notably, the Latin “in-” has been imported into both English and German, including some variations (e.g. the “im-” in “improper”).

***Proof-reading, I spot a potential English analogue in “human”–“inhuman”. The meanings of “inhuman” and “Unmensch” are not identical, but they are overlapping. Moreover, the Inhumans of Marvel could conceivably be an example of an augmentative relative humans, or a juxtaposition similar to “Tier”–“Untier”. (Similar-but-undiscovered analogues might exist elsewhere. Certainly, “in-” was sometimes used as an augmentative in Latin, if likely based on another etymological root.)

****With the reservation that “Unding” is usually less strongly loaded than “abomination” (as well as more common and colloquial).

Applying this “Un-” to “Wort”, we can then view “Unwort” as “a non-word”, “an abomination of a word”, (more metaphorically) “a word that should be taken out and shot”, or something similar.* For my part, I will continue my use of “unword”. (Also see an excursion for alternatives.) I might also use something like “unphrase”, but might equally gloss over the complication of compounds/expressions, which often result in multiple words where e.g. German would have one word.**

*The sense of a pure augmentative, e.g. “word to a particularly high degree”, is ruled out by actual use. I do suddenly find myself tempted to apply this interpretation to “Unwort des Jahres”, but it would certainly not reflect the intentions of the perpetrators…

**As an aside, this has the advantage that “too long” is less likely to be a criterion in English. Considering the likes of “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”, this would have been an explicit criterion, had I written this text in and about German.

However, a word does not become an unword merely for being a common slur or for being considered offensive by some group (especially not when this group presumes to make a unilateral decision about offensiveness for others). For instance, “bitch” is and remains a perfectly acceptable word in the context of dogs, while even the use as a slur should be viewed on an “if the shoe fits” basis. Moreover, there is a difference between a slur directed at someone for the purpose of denigrating a group (and/or denigrating that someone for group membership) and for the purpose of using a slur appropriate for the group at hand, and “bitch” almost invariably amounts to the latter. (Cf. a brief discussion in [2].) Then there is the issue of the allegedly denigrated group as users of the word—and most uses of “bitch” that I have encountered have been one woman insulting another, be it to her face or behind her back.

In the case of “nigger”, I cannot make up my mind whether I should consider it an unword. On the one hand, there are many similarities with “bitch”, including a long history and a likely origin* as a non-slur. On the other, there is, to my knowledge, no legitimate use comparable to “bitch” for “female dog”, and the common use by Blacks (somewhat comparable to “bro”) is of a different character than the typical use of “bitch” by women (deliberate insult/slight/whatnot). A more linguistic case might be made based on the severe distortion of spelling and pronunciation that has taken place (cf. footnote*); however, over the timespan involved, this argument becomes weak—applying it consistently would leave us with far more unwords than words in English (Swedish, German, whatnot; the likes of Esperanto and Klingon would fare better).

*The source is the Spanish word “negro” (also the source of the English “negro”), which simply means “black”, and there is no reason to believe that early use was intended as a slur. (Note the difference between using a slur to express disapproval/whatnot and merely using a word for someone, something, some group, of which one disapproves/whatnot; also note the related phenomenon of “euphemism treadmills”.)

To look at some examples of English unwords:*

*While the examples all have a political connection, this is a matter of my own exposure over the last few years—not of politics being the only source.

NGO/Non-Governmental Organisation: Apart from this word/expression being poorly or inconsistently defined, the default assumption of an organisation must be that it is not part of a government, and it is the governmental organisations that should be put apart—not the non-governmental ones. This especially as the use often seems to give “NGOs” an inherently lesser legitimacy than governmental organisations.* A particular problem is that many organisations that are non-governmental (and, therefore, should be included) often seem to be excluded, as with profit-oriented corporations. Kill off “NGO” and speak of “organisation” or something more specific (e.g. “non-profit organisation”; the best choice will vary from case to case).

*Implicitly, that there are proper and governmental organisations—and then there are those pointless NGOs, who at best are amateurs who get in the way of us professionals, at worst are thinly disguised agents for foreign governments.

They (and variations): Is a true abomination when abused and should be viewed as deeply offensive Newspeak. Cf. earlier texts, e.g. [3]. Use strictly for the third-person plural and stick to grammatically and stylistically better solutions for other cases. (Such solutions are offered in [3].)

Mansplaining: A sexist ad-hominem term, usually used by someone lacking in arguments, for the purpose of not having to admit that she is wrong or said something stupid. The “man” part does not make sense by language standards (but is inserted to push an anti-man agenda) and alters “explaining” so much that understandability is reduced. Moreover, portmanteaus are usually best avoided. See an earlier text for a deeper treatment.

Rape culture: Here the component “rape” is abused in an inexcusable manner, as what is called “rape culture” often has nothing to do with rape and, when it does, uses a severely distorted view of reality, especially men, women, and how men treat women. However, the claim of “rape culture”, pseudo-justified by that distortion of meaning and reality, is then used to push an impression of a culture which considers rape something acceptable and common (“all men are rapists” and so on). As the phrase is virtually only used to push a Feminist hate-agenda, it should be stricken without replacement. (As an aside, I have contemplated launching a counter-phrase like “castration culture”, which would certainly be more justified in the typical Western society of today.)

Climate denier: This term has no justification and should be avoided in favor of more factually correct descriptions.* To quote from [1]**

*Exactly what those are will depend on the circumstances. However, it is important not to fall into the trap of raising an accusation around climate, per se. For instance, there are neither “climate deniers” nor “climate sceptics”—some given person might, however, be a “climate-change sceptic”. (Here it is also important not to misrepresent the actual opinions of that someone, contrary to Leftist habits. For instance, it is possible to see climate change as anthropogenic-but-harmless, as present-but-not-anthropogenic, or as not present, and these three opinions will often be too far apart to be reasonably grouped together. Also note the case of Koonin below.)

**Footnote present in the original but “renumbered” in the quote.

[…] “climate denier” does check a relevant linguistic checkbox through being highly illogical (who denies that the climate exists?!?). It is also highly misleading, defamatory, and serves as a dishonest ad-hominem attack, which makes it all the more worthy of condemnation. […] “climate denier” is thrown around in a wild manner, including against those, like Koonin, who appear to be more-or-less believers in e.g. man-made climate change but object to misrepresentations of the underlying science by media, special interest groups, and the like.*

*I remain agnostic on the issue; however, I also have very strong objections to the methods that the fanatics use in the climate debate—methods that are intellectually dishonest, anti-scientific, and generally worthy of condemnation, regardless of what the facts on the climate are.

(Generally, the “denier” family contains many potential examples that are typically used in a similar manner and with a similar degree of intellectual dishonesty; however, “climate denier” is a particularly bad case through its lack of logic compared to e.g. “climate-change denier”.)

COVIDiot: Not only a pointless slur, but also an ad-hominem term. Moreover, the slur is usually directed at intelligent and well-informed individuals who think for themselves by stupid and conformant sheeple. As such the term would be better used in the other direction, if at all.* This is another portmanteau and one that requires inconsistent use of upper- and lower-case relative “COVID” and “idiot”. (While some write “Covid” to begin with, this word usually seems to be written “COVIDiot” or otherwise with an odd mixture of upper- and lower-case letters.)

*That time has proved the sheeple wrong, as opposed to right-for-a-bad-reason, on virtually every issue, does not help the word.

Excursion on development of meaning of “Un-”/“un-”:
While I have not investigated the historical development, it seems plausible that the sense of something wrong developed from the negation by a semi-analogy with constellations like “Wahrheit”–“Unwahrheit”. Here we do have a pure negation, but a negation that comes with a potentially strong change of character and strong negative connotations. It might even be argued that an untruth is an abomination in comparison to a truth in the same way that a monster is when compared to an animal. (That the sense of negation came first is almost certain, considering the popularity of cognate prefixes with the same effect in Indo-European languages.)

Similarly, “Summe”–“Unsumme” could give clues in that an Unsumme could have negative connotations in some contexts, e.g. when it refers to a debt owed or, from the point of view of someone jealous, an amount in the possession of someone else. However, how the type of intensifying effect seen in “Unsumme” original arose is then unclear, and it could be the other way around, that the likes of “Tier”–“Untier” came first and the usually greater size/strength/danger/whatnot associated with “Untier” caused the intensifying effect to develop and then to be applied to the likes of “Unsumme”.

On the other hand, if an intensifying effect was present sufficiently early, it is also conceivable that we had drifts in the other direction, e.g. that “Untier” began as a word for a particularly large/strong/dangerous/whatnot animal, and that the sense of monster developed from there.

Excursion on “unword” as a potential unword:
A case could conceivably be made that “unword”, in English, would be an unword, e.g. with an eye at the lack of precedence for similar formations or the (too?) strong influence of the German original. However, there is the English “unperson” (likely, by Orwell), which is at least somewhat similar and is in general use.

A more English replacement is tricky to find. For instance, “non-word” would be conceivable, but would a) miss the underlying sense of something abominable, b) risk confusion with non-words like “alkdfsdfg”. I might go with “anti-word”, but this seems like too much of a compromise and might cause confusion,* while e.g. “dis[-]word” would border on the silly. Of course, “non-”, “anti-”, and “dis-” are all still recognizable as borrowings, which makes their use in a “more English replacement” dubious. Fully replacing one set of foreign words with another (cf. footnote*) borders on the absurd, which rules out the likes of “antinomen” and “kakalogos” (or whatever the correct forms might be); although, something like “ignomen” might work as a joke.

*That too much of a distance can be a bad thing is seen with Freud and “Ich” (German for “I”) vs. the English borrowing of Latin “Ego” to fill the same role. Ditto “Es”/“Id” and “Über-Ich”/“Super-Ego”. It would have been better to just keep the German words (or to give an actual English translation).

An alternative would be to keep “Unwort”, but this, I suspect, would be more likely to cause confusion on a first encounter than “unword” and introduces the complication of whether to capitalize German nouns in English. (I usually do, but the typical recommendation seems to be to treat them like English nouns. Moreover, if the word is sufficiently popular for sufficiently long, it would gain the actual status of an English noun, like so many other borrowings, and likely be handled by English rules anyway.)

All in all, “unword” seems a reasonable solution.


Written by michaeleriksson

February 23, 2023 at 11:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

The deserving “deserve” / Follow-up: Some unfortunate words and uses

leave a comment »

In an older text ([1]), I spoke strongly against most uses of “deserve” (here and elsewhere taken to include variations, e.g. “deserving”). Since then, I have noticed that I use this word comparatively often myself, e.g. earlier today ([2]). In some cases, it could be that I should follow my own recommendations and use e.g. “has earned” over “deserves”; however, there is more to it. Consider a mention in [2] (emphasis added):

For instance, if some variation of the second scheme was implemented, a teacher who just happens to have several genuine A-students (as opposed to “got an A, because everyone gets an A”-students) could effectively be punished for giving the A-students the grade that they truly deserve.

How should this best be expressed without “deserve”? A “have earned” is tempting, and many, especially those naive about school, might resort to this; however, what grade is, in some sense, deserved moves on a different level—and one of the problems with school is a naive failure to see the difference. (Note e.g. the writings of educationrealist, who has repeatedly dealt with such failure and its consequences, e.g. in [3] and [4].)

For instance, if we look at a naive school (school system, teacher, whatnot), someone might “earn” a certain grade by putting in the busy work, doing the right assignments, etc.—but if the intended knowledge and understanding does not manifest, how can we say that the student deserves a good grade, even should he, on paper, have earned it?* Vice versa, if a student has not done various busy work, maybe because he already has mastered the matter-to-be-mastered and knows it, he might still deserve a good grade based on his knowledge and understanding—and he would arguably do so without having earned it. (Certainly, some teachers would argue that he has not earned it, and, worse, follow with the poor conclusion that “because he has not done the busy work, he is also undeserving”.)

*Here we might also have complications like the possibility that someone would have gained a higher degree of proficiency, had it not been for boring busywork or a teacher who was detrimental to own thinking in the students. If such a student fulfills the “legal” requirements, denying the “earned” would be very unfair, and even a “deserve” could conceivably be argued, if a “deserved” of a different type than the one discussed above.

Other variations that might arise from [1] include “right”—but by what standard does someone have the right to a certain grade? An a priori right certainly does not exist. (Although some out-of-touch-with-reality hyper-egalitarians might want to claim exactly this, maybe because meaningful grades would be “social injustice” or “White supremacy” and, therefore, everyone must get an A.) Even after completion of the course/class/whatnot, a right must be contingent on some accomplishment or demonstration, e.g. the passing of a test, and here the problems begin: For instance, the wrong type of teacher might argue that the right arises automatically and solely from doing the right assignments, and we are back at square one.* For instance, a deserving student might not be offered a sufficiently good chance at earning that right, e.g. because of a poor system with no sufficient evaluation. For instance, a deserving student might miss the offer through being ill at the wrong time. In the latter two cases, he would still be deserving, but he would not have earned the right, and a distinction between the two is clearly needed.**

*The issue might be partially resolved through making a differentiation between a “true” right and a merely perceived right, but, in a next step, we land at issues like whose perception is just perception and whose perception reflects that “true” right. Alternatively, we might argue a difference between a “true” right and a “legalistic” right, but this has similar issues and the difference between such a “true” right and a “deserves” might not be worth the bother.

**In all fairness, even when we speak in terms of deserving, a differentiation between begin deserving and having proven oneself deserving will often be necessary.

More generally, there are very many cases of “deserve”, especially in a negative direction, that I am on board with, e.g. that someone like Fauci or Birx might deserve to be prosecuted, with a severe jail sentence as a possible result, but where other formulations are problematic. For instance, with Fauci and Birx, it is not a given that there is sufficient legal grounds to prosecute them, which makes “earned” and “right”* problematic. (And, off topic, I suspect that any prosecution would end with a big nothing.)

*Another problem is, of course, that rights relate to positives; however, this is more a matter of words than of principle. We might simply replace “right” with some variation of “obligation” in appropriate contexts and/or view the right involved here as something belonging to the victims.

In many ways, this type of “deserve” does involve some abstract, and often subjective, moral angle, and claims like “I deserve” and “he deserves” do have a niche to fill. (From a linguistic point of view. It does not automatically follow that any given claim is factually/ethically/whatnot justified—and my original complaint is rooted in the many cases of wishful thinking, propaganda, etc.) Nevertheless, the points of [1] largely hold, especially in that better words should be used when they fit and that we must differ between “I deserve” and e.g. “I want”.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 11, 2023 at 4:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Observations around recent writing(s)

leave a comment »

A few random observations around my recent writing and writings:

  1. It is easy for some formulation, some word, some approach, whatnot, to gain something almost formulaic and to become detached from its original purpose, original meaning, or whatever might apply.

    As I have noted in the past, “e.g.” has in my eyes come to be closer to a mark of punctuation than to an abbreviation—to the point that I have considered formalizing this by introducing some own sign to fill the same role in slightly less space. I have abstained for the simple reason that such a sign would require constant explanation to new readers, which makes it highly suboptimal for the blog (and similar) format(s). (While it might work reasonably well in a book, provided that it is the only, or just one a very few, special signs.) However, a somewhat similar complication applies even to “e.g.”, it self: While any English reader should understand this abbreviation (and shame on him, not me, if he does not), the mental switch that has taken place with me, from abbreviation to quasi-punctuation, cannot reasonably be expected. Where I might then find a repeated use of “e.g.” in one paragraph or even one sentence as unremarkable as the repeated use of commata, someone else might view it as an absurd repetitiveness of formulation—just like I react negatively to Wikipedia articles that contain “also” in every other sentence.* I have increasingly tried to be more varied by substituting a “for instance” here, a “for example” there, and some other formulation in between, but this often feels wasteful and it can remove any claim of an “e.g.” closely followed by an “e.g.” being legitimate, as it now clearly is not punctuation.

    *Notably, articles on actors tend to be filled to the brim with claims like “He also starred in X. After that, he also starred in Y. In 1999, he also starred in Z.”. The best that can be hoped for is that formulations using “also” are alternated with formulations using “then”.

    (Yes, I can write entirely without “e.g.” and its equivalents—as in the above paragraph, where I feared that the use would decrease readability unduly. I can also get by without “however”, “on the one hand”, “firstly”, “whatnot”, and whatnot; and I do realize that they can make a text, in some sense, heavier. However, when I do, the end result is that I feel a loss of precision in bringing my intentions over and/or must use uglier or less flexible formulations.)

    Another example is “excursion”: From an etymological point of view,* the word can be given a very free interpretation; however, I suspect that my own use pushes the border. The reason is similar, in that the word “excursion” came to mean “some lines following the main body of a text, never mind form, length, and content” to me. Here, too, I occasionally try to be more precise, e.g. by marking a disclaimer with “disclaimer” instead of “excursion”, but I am not very consistent.

    *The Latin root would amount to a “running out”, with English meanings including various trips and side-trips (as well as metaphorical such in texts), and with German/Swedish near-calques (“Ausflucht”/“utflykt”) that have been known to include picnics.

  2. Beginning in December (2022; currently, January 2023), I have increasingly tried a policy of “write the text at once and add no new backlog entries”. This has worked reasonably well, but not perfectly. A particular problem is what to do when I am writing one text and am met with the idea for another. The repeated misjudgment that “I can temporarily suspend the writing of longer text A to get shorter text B out of the way”, has usually resulted in text B being as long as or longer than text A, and comes with the risk that I have an idea for a text C while writing text B… I have certainly not had enough time to get rid of older backlog entries and my backlog has still grown somewhat. (But this must be seen in the context of a lower text count for January, to date, than in the previous months.)
  3. A partial reason for this lower text count is my recent illness. The illness was quite brief, but it resulted in a prolonged sleep deficit. Too often, in the days since, I have simply lacked the energy and the alertness of mind to write (read, or doing anything else more constructive) resp. write a text of a greater length/importance/effort/whatnot.

    Other reasons include that “fed up” has often won in a contest between a wish to finish more texts and my being a bit fed up with writing.

  4. Over time, I have found my own style of writing growing more complex, unless I consciously counter it to deliberately strive for simpler words and a simpler sentence structure. I have not quite descended to the level of, say, Oswald Spengler, whom I have explicitly criticized in the past ([1]), but I do find myself drifting in a similar direction. While I consider this unfortunate, it raises the question whether such convoluted prose is a personal failing and/or an attempt to “sound smart”, which I have long assumed, or whether it might be an unfortunate side-effect of too much writing and/or too much reading of intellectual or “intellectual” authors.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 17, 2023 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Today’s agendas

leave a comment »

As I recently found myself using “agendas”:

There is some debate around whether “agenda” is, it self, a plural or a singular. This debate typically misses the point, as both answers are correct in the right circumstances but these circumstances are not truly overlapping.

Firstly, if we look at the original Latin, “agenda” is a plural* (neuter, nominative/accusative/vocative), which can be colloquially translated as “todos”**. If we allow the borrowing of this word (one agendum, two agenda), then this use of “agenda” is a plural in English too.

*Or, to make matters more complicated, a feminine singular.

**A more accurate translation might be “things that are to be done”, following a general scheme of imported Latin gerundives based on verbs including e.g. “agenda” (do), “Miranda” (admire), “Amanda” (love), and “propaganda” (propagate).

Secondly, if we look at the more usual English “agenda” and its several meanings, it is best viewed as a singular. It arose from the Latin plural, maybe first for the “schedule” for a meeting, a day’s events, or similar,* but did so while losing the plural character—just like a “pair of scissors” has lost the plural character of that “scissors” had in a one scissor, two scissors setting.** The agenda of a meeting is certainly a single thing, even should it happen to be composed of other things. There might be room to discuss whether this use of “agenda” should be viewed as singular or as a plurale tantum, but the latter would lose expressiveness by preventing the use of a proper and distinct plural—and, certainly, the ability to discuss agendas plural is beneficial, be it with regard to multiple meetings, various actors in the Ukraine, or something else yet.

*I am uncertain which meaning is the oldest, but this seems plausible and is certainly likelier than the “agenda” in phrases like “a hidden agenda”.

**Even a stand-alone “scissors” is sometimes used as a singular, e.g. “he grabbed a scissors”. I am not certain whether to approve or disapprove of such use, but I have repeatedly seen/heard similar constructs in at least British English (e.g. “he grabbed a trousers”). Interestingly, here an English plural was applied to begin with; the Latin “scissor” would have required “scissores” (nominative; potentially something else if the English “of” was combined with another Latin case, e.g. “scissorum” for plural genitive).

As an aside, using a Latin plural of “agendae” would be conceivable, but would also imply that the underlying “agenda” was a feminine singular, which is etymologically far-fetched and would blur the differentiation between the original Latin and the newer English words/meanings. Here it is better to stick with an English plural formation (“agendas”). (I have no objections to e.g. “antennae”, as the underlying “antenna” is a more regular singular and could not be a plural.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 14, 2023 at 2:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Appropriation of words and subsequent abuse

leave a comment »

Recently, I discussed words with clashing uses. As a special case, what if someone presumes to appropriate a certain word (and/or appropriates it out of ignorance), declare it to have one single meaning of note, and demand e.g. a ban of the word based on this single meaning? Similarly, what if someone takes the existence of one specific “evil” meaning, even among many other meanings, as a reason to forbid use? Similarly, what if someone takes that one specific meaning as what someone else “must” mean when he uses the word, regardless of those many other meanings? Etc. (Also note the constant Leftist demand for tolkningsföreträde, and some other texts on similar abuse, e.g. an excursion in [1] dealing e.g. with the Swedish words “neger” and “negerboll”.)

Consider the case of “calling a spade a spade”: Here “spade” refers to a digging implement, the word is age old, and the saying goes back to ancient Greece. However, through a very illogical and coincidental development (see excursion), there is also a rare use of “spade” to refer to someone Black—in slang, and likely specifically outdated and specifically U.S. slang, at that. Ergo, according to some Leftists, “calling a spade a spade” is racist, offensive, discriminating, or similar—and must be forbidden.

While the words “black” and “brown” have so far not been under general attack (presumably, something still too absurd even for the modern Left), I have heard of the wish to ban and/or condemn as racist (etc.) various words and set phrases, in which the color has a negative meaning—or where the color merely appears, or where the color seems to appear, or where the color only indirectly* appears.** Does e.g. “blacklist” have anything to do with U.S. Blacks or slavery? No. Nevertheless, self-centered idiots want the word banned for allegedly associating Blacks with something negative… That the use of “Black”, as opposed to e.g. “Negro”, to refer to this population group post-dates many of the criticized uses makes matters worse. (“Dear McDonald’s, I just changed my name to McDonald. When you serve meat, you damage my reputation as a vegetarian. Please stop doing so immediately!”)

*Note the below excursion on Brownies.

**The examples used here mostly relate to Blacks, likely specifically U.S. Blacks. This reflects the typical proportions in my past exposures. However, similar examples exist in other, usually Leftist, areas, e.g. that many Feminists and/or women appear to have a hatred for the word “bitch” with no regard for the existence of (and precedence in use for) female dogs. (Going off-topic, I have often wondered why “cunt” is considered a lethal insult for a woman, while women have no qualms about using “dick” to describe a man. Hypocrites!)

A particular interesting case, and one which I saw mentioned again somewhat recently, is “master”: Because “master” has been used to address slave owners during the U.S. slavery era, any and all modern use of “master” must be verboten.

However, “master” has a very wide range of meanings, both today and historically, including, among many others, a certain type of degree and its holder, someone who has mastery in a certain field, someone in a position of authority, and a term of address for an older-but-non-adult male child of a servant’s employer. Moreover, it is or has been contained in a great many compounds, many of which, in turn, are sometimes abbreviated as “master”, e.g. “master key” and “master template”. The vast, vast majority of these have no connection to slavery, be it in general or specifically the U.S. slavery era.

Moreover, “master” is used in those English speaking countries that had no part in the U.S. slavery era and exists as a borrowing in a great many other countries (notably in the academic meanings). Should “master” be allowed in one country but not the other? Should the U.S. threaten economic and military intervention unless these other countries drop all uses of “master” too? Should a British use of “master” be turned into something else before being allowed in the U.S.? Etc.

Moreover, “master” and its relatives are entrenched in a manner that makes its removal hard, arbitrary, and/or would force a great many other words to be removed for consistency. In addition to the aforementioned, it goes back to the Latin “magister”, has siblings in a great many languages,* and has siblings in English**.

*E.g. the Swedish “mästare” and the German “Meister”. What if, e.g., some Swedish books translate slavery-related occurrences of “master” with “mästare”? What would this imply for Swedish? (More generally, any word chosen for such a translation could conceivably be vulnerable to attack for e.g. “being offensive”, if this type of reasoning were taken to its logical conclusion.)

**Including the aforementioned “magister” (in rare borrowings), “mister”, and “maestro”. Is the difference between “mister” and “master” that large? What if the pronunciation of one or both drifts to make the spelling difference inaudible?

Moreover, there is the issue of historical use. Should e.g. historical documents and older books be revised? Should correct historical (“authentic”) use, as with “nigger”, be banned in modern works? How should book titles like “Master and Commander” (British author Patrick O’Brian) and song titles like “Master and Servant” (British band Depeche Mode) be handled and should they be handled differently based on nationality?

Even looking at the U.S. slavery era, there was no title/position/qualification/whatnot “master” that implied e.g. “slave owner”. Instead, it was a form of address and general description used for a group of individuals that also often happened to be slave owners if living in certain states resp., if pertaining to an individual slave–master relationship, was not rooted in slavery per se and would also have applied to a regular servant–master relationship. Moving to an identity would be as idiotic as identifying unmarried women with school teachers (cf. excursion). To this might be added some uncertainty on how historical this use of “master” at all was. Going by the (admittedly, mostly fictional) accounts that I have seen, the mangling “massa” appears to have been more common among the slaves, either or both might have been extended to (male) Whites in general by many slaves, and the actual owner could have preferred a different term, as “master” was also used for e.g. his young sons.*

*Here I would need to do more research, but I note that a British servant of at least some time frames might have thought twice about addressing the master of the house as “master”.

Of course, even if connections with the U.S. slavery era had been much stronger, a restriction in use would have been very dubious. Even the step from “I am offended/traumatized/whatnot by X” to “X is offensive/traumatizing/whatnot” is quite large and requires a much stronger, much more rational, and much more objective reason to actually be offended/traumatized/whatnot. A far stronger case for offensiveness could be made for e.g. the attempts to restrict use of “master” than for that use… If we were to assume that “master” was a legitimately problematic word, how could Grace Jones, less than forty years ago, sing about being a slave to the rhythm and not traumatize herself? Are current Blacks so much weaker or so much more irrational that they need to be protected from a mere “master”? Then there are pesky little issues like freedom of speech to consider, even should a word be deemed genuinely problematic.

A very similar example is “chief” (and also one that I have seen again somewhat recently): Because the leaders of various tribes of “native Americans”* were often referred to as “chief[s]”, any and all use of “chief” is evil**. This despite the use for “native Americans” being a mere extension of an existing and well-established English noun*** with a Latin root, cognates in other languages, etc., etc. Because there were “Indian chiefs”, no-one is allowed to have “fire chiefs”, “chiefs of police”, and whatnots…

*A horrible and horribly ill-advised misnomer. Something like “American Aborigines” would be much better. Certainly, by any reasonable standard, the vast majority of the current U.S. population would consist of native Americans—just like the majority of the current Swedish population consists of native Swedes. (With a more reasonable debate centering on whether “native American”, if used at all, should be restricted to USAnians or also include, say, Canadians and Peruvians.)

**Also note the non sequitur involved. There might be an emotion involved here, but not thought, reason, and logic. (Note that an angle of alleged “cultural appropriation”, as opposed to “is evil”, “is racist”, whatnot, falls flat on its face through widespread prior, concurrent, and subsequent use in other meanings. In contrast, restricting “chief” to “Indian chiefs” would truly be appropriation.)

***I originally wrote “word”, but here a differentiation is needed. Consider “brave”: if we look at the adjective, much of the same applies, but I have no recollection of seeing the noun used for anything but “Indian braves” and chances are that the noun would be universally understood to refer to one of them. (Note that such a universally understanding does not make use of “brave” evil.)

Excursion on non-political cases:
Non-political cases exist. A particularly annoying one is the lawyers’ appropriation of “esquire”, which should either be a near free-for-all (semi-recent historical use) or limited to a much more select group than lawyers (older historical use)—and a group not strongly overlapping with lawyers. An even more annoying, but borderline, case exists in the abuse of “doctor” to refer to a physician without an actual, real doctorate (which the U.S. M.D. is not), which leads to absurdities like real doctors, e.g. Ph.D. holders, being denounced as “not real doctors”, while physicians, who truly are not real doctors, can use the title with impunity.

Excursion on justification for condemnations:
As might be gathered from the above, it is often hard to attack the reasoning of the various Leftist nuts in detail, because this “reasoning” is usually unclear or outright absent. If some is provided, it is usually so vague and insubstantial that it has no convincing value but relies on leaving the critic with nothing but fog to punch. Were there a line of real reasoning, it would likely be easy to pick apart; as there is not, we have to let the fogginess serve as self-incrimination. (A typical argument might amount to “X is racist!”, with no explanation of why and how this would come about, or an explanation amounting to “X is racist because racism!!!”.)

Excursion on other conflations of meaning:
Similar conflations of meanings, while incorrect, are not that uncommon. For instance, as a very small (Swedish) child, I grew up with the misapprehension that “magister” implied a male teacher, as male teachers were addressed in this manner in various books, movies, etc.* The true reason was that male teachers typically had earned the academic degree of “magister”.** Similarly, I took “fröken” to imply a female teacher—but this was nothing more than a “miss” and, as teaching once was an occupation almost exclusively for unmarried women,*** female teachers were addressed as any other unmarried woman. This with the reservation that there might, in either or both case(s), have been some drift in meaning over time through others making the same mistake and/or because a certain title had become an informal tradition.

*Of a slightly older nature. The use was dated even back then.

**Compare this with “professor” (title of employment) vs. “doctor” (another academic degree). Far from all doctors are professors and while most professors are doctors, exceptions can occur.

***This use and this restriction were also dated even back then.

(I am uncertain why there was a male–female asymmetry, but I suspect that women taught so young children that, at the time, no degree was needed or necessarily available, and that the men handled higher years where a greater depth and breadth of knowledge was relevant. The situation in many other countries appears to have been similar.)

Excursion on Brownies (girl scouts):
During writing, I encountered news that ’Brownies’ Changes Its Name Because It Was Racist. Here a similar issue occurs. The Brownies are/were apparently named after the fairy creature—but this does not stop race-obsessed hate-mongers from demanding a spurious change with some pseudo-argument or other. (See the linked-to text for more information.)

Excursion on “spade” and etymology:
The use to imply someone Black is based on the color of the card-suit spades. To this note that:

  1. The card-suit does not actually feature spades, but pikes or swords. The leap to “spade” arises from similar (and etymologically related) words being common in Romance languages to denote swords. For some reason or other, these swords (unlike clubs, diamonds, and hearts) went untranslated.*

    *But note the complication that arbitrary translations of terms and the use of different sets of cards in different countries/traditions make comparisons tricky and the word “translation” potentially misleading.

  2. There are two card-suits that are black—and there is no obvious reason to prefer “spade” over “club”.
  3. The choice of card colors is arbitrary and the spades might equally have been red—or green, blue, whatnot. Similarly, either or both of hearts and diamonds could have been black. (With reservations for the natural color of a heart.)

Correspondingly, that the choice fell on the word “spade” involved a great amount of (arguably, unfortunate) coincidence.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2023 at 6:20 pm

More on pronouns and the war on pronouns

leave a comment »

Disclaimer: I wrote most of the below two weeks ago. To avoid further delays, I finish the text off today with an eye at getting it done rather than at quality and completeness. This as I have already dealt with large portions of this topic repeatedly (cf. below links) and my main intent was simply to point to (a) the ever worsening and ever more absurd situation and (b) my growing suspicion of the below-mentioned war on pronouns.

Quite a few oddities could be explained if we assume an outright war on pronouns, a wish to effectively kill off anything except “they” and its variations (for which I will use “they” as a shorthand).* This, then, likely as a part in a greater war on the individual/on individualism. (Apart from human stupidity, incompetence, and irrationality, forces never to be underestimated, the only other reason that I see as somewhat plausible is a mentality of forcing others to comply with absurdities for the sake of compliance in a “Nineteen Eighty-Four” manner.)

*For now, the problem is largely one of the second person, with a drift from an earlier replacement of “he” as the generic singular with the absurd “they”, to replacing all second-person pronouns with “they”. It might be that things will end there, as the first and third persons are more restricted in forms; it might be that the problem will spread to them too.

The most obvious perversion of pronouns is the “preferred pronoun” mania,* which has no** actual benefits for its users/proponents, but (a) makes “they” the more prominent at the cost of “he” and “she”, (b) introduces ambiguity and confusion around numbers and group belongings, and (c) serves to remove individuality. Note that there is an increasing drift towards using “they” for someone of a known sex but an unknown “preference” (where the logical thing to do, even if someone believes in “preferred pronouns”, is to default to the natural sex-specific ones.*** This the more so, as most of us do not have an explicitly stated preference, have not spent much time on the issue, and/or consider the idea of “preferred pronouns” (as opposed to those dictated by standard English) an absurdity.

*Something highly wrong-headed, as it presumes to force others to use pronouns in a non-standard and ultimately arbitrary manner. Forcing others to such non-standard use is certainly a greater violation, more harmful, and more offensive than any consequences of ignoring the “preferred pronouns”. Moreover, the additional burden (and the risk of accidental errors) in terms of remembering the right set of pronouns for the right person is ridiculous. Then there is the issue of how to handle unknown preferences.

**Indeed, the mere idea that use of non-standard pronouns would somehow be better (or use of standard pronouns worse) for someone is a complete non sequitur. In an interesting contrast, I recently (cf. [1]) wrote about actually offensive and rude use of pronouns—and a use which has paradoxically raised very few objections. Here we do have a case where preferences should be respected, as they relate to a legitimate aspect of choice, but where they are not.

***Consider, by analogy, if animals were labeled as “omnivores” until the correctness of an individual “carnivore” or “herbivore” had been established—and this even when the status as one of the two was highly likely to begin with, and this despite “omnivore” being a mislabeling of, say, a carnivore to the same degree as labeling an omnivore “carnivore”.

The more important is the abuse of “they” in various cases where it does not belong, notably: as a generic second-person singular; as an attempt to be “gender neutral” for animals (where “it” is the traditional form and the obvious solution); as a blanket term for any noun with a collective connotation (even if not an outright “collective noun”), foregoing the often superior “it”; as a perverted coordinate of “one”;* etc. (Cf. a number of older texts, including at least [2], [3], [4].) However, over time, I have seen more and more cases of the use of “they” when an “it” is called for, including such absurdities as “a soul makes their way” instead of “a soul makes its way”,** a known man/woman with no “gender confusion” referred to as “they”,*** and similar. The sheer volume of abuse of “they” is simply so large that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something truly unsavory is going on, that either individual authors/speakers or content-creating/-controlling businesses (e.g. Disney) deliberate push idiotic uses to achieve an ideological purpose.

*E.g. “one must keep their promises” over “one must keep one’s promises”. Note how this use of “their” is not only entirely pointless and redundant but also, as is so often the case with abuse of “they”/“their”/“them”/whatnot, outright misleading, as the implication of the faulty version is that “one” should keep the promises of some unspecified others. (If this implication is the actual intent, the use is both correct and harmless; however, the opposite is very often clear from context.)

**I recently encountered this case, or something very close to it, in the movie “Mindcage”.

***As in e.g. a straight woman discussing a date-with-a-straight-man with others who know this man, and where there has been no prior sign of e.g. gender confusion or “preferred pronouns”, but where she still resorts to phrases like “I wonder whether they want a second date”.

Other cases referring to a singular someone include:*

*Here my draft from two weeks ago contained a few notes for expansion and the intention to provide more examples. I have just turned the existing cases into a list instead. In all cases, replacing “they” with “he” resp. “she” would be correct; however, the point of the examples is that this is not necessary and that a “gender neutral” version can be had without abuse of “they”—indeed, is often very natural.

  1. Turning “who it was” into “who they were” (e.g. “I know who it was” vs. “I know who they were”).
  2. Unnecessary use of “their” over “the” (“the child throws the[ir] ball”).
  3. Unnecessary use of “their” over “a[n]” (“the speaker stated [an/their] opinion”)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2023 at 9:59 am

On words with clashing uses

with 2 comments

Writing a text relating to history, I find myself discussing two* examples of words that are used** with different meanings and with potentially radical implications—which also matches an item from my backlog.

*See the below entry for “[historical] revisionism” and an excursion on “historiography”.

**In some of the cases discussed below, claiming that the words have a certain meaning is hard to justify, while the use with that meaning is indisputable. Note e.g. variations of “decimation”.

That words are used with different meanings is unremarkable and often something harmless,* but it can often lead to confusion, especially when one use becomes dominant and the awareness of the other use(s) is not universal,** and sometimes there can be real problems. The last applies especially when the domain and context of use is the same. A few examples:

*Consider e.g. “step” in senses like performing a certain movement of the leg (verb), that movement as such (noun), a small height increase to step (in the first sense) up, a portion of an activity (“in a first step, …”), a type of dance, and performing such a dance.

**Consider “car”, which is today taken to imply “motorcar” in a near blanket manner, but which can also contextually mean e.g. “railroad car”—and the 19th century was filled with (non-motorized) cars.

  1. Populism: My own encounters until the last few years had a strongly derogatory sense of playing to the favor of the broad masses, often in a “panem et circenses” manner.* Since then, I have seen quite a few uses implying roughly “with the best interest of the population** in mind” (as opposed to e.g. “the best interest of the government” or “[…] the politicians”). The one is something negative; the other usually*** something positive—and either meaning can be made to fit with most uses. (Consider e.g. “he is a populist”.)

    *Or did they? It is possible that some of them actually used the alternate sense, but that I failed to notice and correspondingly misunderstood the intent.

    **Here, I would likely normally have spoken of “people”; however, in another semi-example, that word could contextually be taken in a more nationalist sense than intended.

    ***The devil can be in the details, e.g. in that a focus on the masses often coincides with a neglect of the rights and interests of the individual members, that someone does not see the trees for the forest.

  2. Revisionism/historical revisionism: Most uses seem to imply a malicious attempt to change historiography (see excursion on use) to serve some agenda, as with e.g. many Leftist history distortions.* However, a significant number of uses simply refers to a changed understanding of history and/or any change in historiography.

    *Including most or all of my own uses. I might or might not switch to e.g. “history distortion” at a later time.

    Here we again see a radical difference in implications, as the first type of use points to something evil, while the other does not, as well as another case of both meanings fitting in most uses. Indeed, the former can be seen as a narrowing in meaning relative the latter or, conversely, the latter as a broadening in meaning relative the former.* (Consider e.g. “the 1619 project is historical revisionism”, which even the participants in the project will readily admit in the wider sense, but might deny in the more narrow. The more narrow sense holds, of course.)

    *While the interpretations of “populist” are no more than overlapping, and not necessarily strongly overlapping at that, as actions taken might often be similar but the intents behind them differ. (In neither case have I investigated which meaning came first.)

  3. Liberal[ism]: Is a long-standing problem, with a drift in use from something closer to today’s Libertarianism to something that is increasingly antithetical to the original meaning, and which often has more in common with Socialism than with Libertarianism. The problem is made the worse by the drift taking place considerable faster in the U.S. than in Europe. Indeed, I largely grew up with an understanding of the term as close to Libertarianism, sometimes described myself as “Liberal”, and tried to preserve a distinction between (true/classical) Liberalism and U.S. pseudo-Liberalism. However, that battle is now long lost.
  4. Neoliberal[ism]: Has somewhat similar problems. When I first encountered the term,* it seemed geared at a revival of (classical) Liberalism, then my encounters went through a prolonged time of (usually Leftist) insults/caricatures of certain economic policies of a largely pro-market and laissez-faire kind, with no regard for non-economic ideas, and most recent encounters seem to refer to the modern (pseudo-)Liberals in analogy to “Neocon”—and sometimes as an insult directed at the Left. As with Liberalism, we then have to different uses that are more-or-less antithetical. To make matters more complicated, other uses yet exist and/or have existed.

    *The issue is a little blurred by my first contacts being with the Swedish “nyliberal”, which alternately could be seen as “Libertarian” or “Neoliberal”. The Swedish encounter might have been in the late 1980s or very early 1990s; the English encounter, a few years later. Generally, note that it can be hard to tell when my impressions of a change in use reflect an actual underlying change in use and when a change in exposure to use, especially when different countries might have differences in use. (For simplicity, I ignore this difference in most of the text.)

  5. Decimate: Is a representative of words that are abused in a manner incompatible with the true meaning out of ignorance—and often in a manner directly contradictory to the true meaning. (Other examples include “literal” and “petrified”: “Petrified with fear, he literally ran as fast as a lightning bolt”, which amounts to “Turned to stone [or, figuratively, immobilized] with fear, he actually and non-figuratively ran as fast as a lightning bolt”.)

    This word is particularly interesting, because its drift in use exemplifies both reasonable and unreasonable changes. It began as a Roman/Latin word relating to specifically one tenth, in senses like the infamous army punishment* and tithing. Both can, at least informally, be seen as variations of “to take a tenth away”.** From this, variations like “to take away a considerable proportion but leaving the clear majority” are acceptable and natural through a metaphorical use, provided that the exact proportion is secondary in context. However, ignorants have introduced an incompatible and unreasonable use of “to take away the clear majority” or, even, “virtually obliterate”. Paradoxically, the one might intend “to remove a tenth-or-so” while the other might intend “to remove all but a tenth-or-so”, the context given is often insufficient to clarify the issue, and the implications can be enormously different. Contrast e.g. the implications of “the decimated soccer team took to the field for the second half”:*** With correct use, the team might have one or two players missing; with incorrect use, it might have just one or two players left. Correspondingly, the ignorant use is to be avoided at all costs.

    *I am not certain whether the army punishment was the original use or just one application of such use. If it was the original use, the drift to, say, “to take a tenth away” in other contexts would be a case of reasonable extension of meaning; if not, the application of “to take a tenth away” to a specific context, e.g. an army punishment, is equally reasonable.

    **A more literal translation might be “to tenth”, which also matches the etymology of the English “to tithe” well.

    ***A military example seems more natural, but then I might get bogged down in the issue of decimation-in-general vs. decimation-as-army-punishment.

    As an aside, the above contains several examples of how an extension in meaning can legitimately take place through metaphorical or figurative use, e.g. with “petrified” -> “immobilized”, “obliterate” -> “destroy”.

  6. Discriminate: (For details on this word, I refer to [1].) Is a representative of another family of problems, namely words that have one meaning as standalone words, occur in compounds with a restricted (or otherwise modified) meaning, and are then reduced to the “compounded” meaning in sloppy use. Another example is “Chauvinism”, implying nationalism, used somewhat metaphorically (and already unwisely) in the compound “male Chauvinism” to imply someone with this-or-that attitude towards women, after which ignorants dropped the “male” and assumed that “Chauvinism” implied only this-or-that attitude towards women. The above “car” -> “motorcar” -> “car” is somewhat similar, but differs in that the change is less likely to reflect an ignorance of meaning and more to reflect convenience.*

    *Cf. e.g. the Swedish “bil” from “automobil” or, maybe, even something like “automobil vagn” (“vagn” is “[non-motor] car”, “wagon”, or similar); the German “Auto”, shortening a similar word/phrase from the other end; and, maybe, the German “Wagen” (again “[non-motor] car”, “wagon”, or similar; I am uncertain whether this goes back to a German equivalent of the “car” transformation or whether “Wagen” was just used continuously regardless of the source of the horsepowers.)

    A particularly interesting example is “sex”, where “sex” in the sense of male-or-female or, maybe, genitalia led to phrases like “sexual intercourse”,* which were then shortened to “sex”, leading to an unusually unnecessary confusion, as it should have been crystal clear that this shortening was ill-advised in light of the original meaning[s].**

    *To be contrasted with (at least) “social intercourse”. As the riddle goes: What is another word for “intercourse”, four letters, ends with a “k”?

    **Unless the new meaning arose by some other, equally ill-advised, road. I note e.g. the almost comical drift in meaning of “make love”, maybe through euphemistic use. Ditto e.g. the French “baiser”.

  7. Racism: Is a representative of yet another family of examples, where words are deliberately and maliciously distorted to fit an agenda, e.g. through deliberate misdefinitions. This, with “racism”, often through trying to push a component of power, cultural dominance, or similar as a necessary criterion, with the idea that the word would, in at least a U.S. context, never be applicable to Blacks or, worse, always be applicable to Whites. Other examples include “rape”, in the overly broad meanings used by many Feminists, and variations of “Fascist” (cf. e.g. parts of [2]).

    (Also note a similar drift of pushing an “is offensive”, “is racist”, whatnot angle to distort meaning on another level. Cf. e.g. [3] and an excursion in [4].)

Excursion on “historiography”:
This word does not quite fit the above pattern, but was (cf. above) of interest to another text that I am writing. Its proper meaning, and the meaning that I usually use, is approximately “the writing down of history” (or, in a widening, the processes, approaches, whatnot to writing down history, and/or, maybe, that which has been written down), which is reflected in the name.* Over time, there has been a drift to imply approximately “the study of the writing down of history”, which by rights would be something like “historiographology”.

*I deliberately avoid “writing history” as this formulation would contradict the point of this excursion.

A similar issue is present in many other fields, in that there is a failure to properly differ between the-field-of-study and study-of-the-field in terms of words, concepts, thoughts, whatnot. Interestingly, when used in the proper sense, “historiography” (description of events, etc.) provides such a separation relative “history” (the events, etc., themselves). In this, “historiography” is immensely valuable, as there are few fields where the difference is more important than history. By (ab)using “historiography” to imply the study of historiography this differentiation is lost for history, while a second area of lacking separation is created.

Excursion on other cases:
The above focuses on some cases that are of personal interest. However, it is by no means a complete discussion and other cases abound, especially when we look at drifts over prolonged time frames and/or between different countries. Consider, even in contemporary English, “sanction” with both approving and disapproving meanings and the multiple meanings of “gas”, which can be particularly confusing during energy discussions, where “gas” as a short for “natural gas” (or other types of gas for e.g. burning in a gas heater) clashes with “gas” as a short for “gasoline”, and where we have the paradox that gasoline is typically fluid and thus gas[oline] needs to be turned into gas[eous form] for that engine to run. Combine the two and we have problem cases like “the purchase of Russian gas was sanctioned”. In Swedish, for some reason, a missile is referred to as “robot”, but so is a robot—and Sweden, ahead of its time, feared robot attacks at a time when the rest of the world considered them something for a sci-fi movie. German has a great many cases that the native can tell apart based on gender/article, but which pose a great complication for me and many other non-native speakers—and sometimes there are multiple meanings both when the gender varies and when it remains constant. Consider e.g. “Band”.

Excursion on everyday language vs. scientific/specialist/legal/whatnot language:
A common issue is that everyday use of words does not always agree with use in a specialist domain, nor uses in different such domains necessarily with each other. Consider e.g. the very specific definitions of “force”, “power”, and “energy” within physics vs. the everyday use.* Here the question arises when and where what use should be viewed as correct/incorrect and when and where a pre-/proscription might be relevant. Worse, the need to consider such issues is not always clear: For instance, the word “generally” in math is usually taken to imply “without exception”, while the everyday word is usually taken to imply “most of the time”. The difference in meaning can be critical, but is often sufficiently small that the reader might not be aware of any ambiguity.

*Including weird mixtures where a “science journalist” appears to speak of a physical concept but uses the wrong words.

Particularly negative is the presumption that legal (more generally, governmental/regulatory) definitions of various types take precedence over everyday language and use in other domains, which borders on the idiotic, as laws can change quickly and as lawmakers rarely bring particular expertise in current/established meanings in the everyday language and relevant (non-legal) domains. In most cases, it is better to view legal definitions as stipulative such, with a limit to areas where the law is what matters. A particularly annoying example is the German “Umsatzsteuer” (probably: “turnover tax”), where the erstwhile turnover tax was correctly referred to as such, but this, now misleading name, was kept when the tax system was changed to use value-added tax (“Mehrwertsteuer”)—leading many fools to actually believe that the German VAT is not VAT or to try to “correct” those who use the word “Mehrwertsteuer”, even be it in a context outside the legal framework or, even, outside Germany.*

*Sweden went through a similar change of system, but had the common sense to actually change the name accordingly. I am under the impression that the same applies to some, maybe many, other countries too.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 4, 2023 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

To be rude to everyone or polite to everyone / Changes to languages and norms

with one comment

One of the themes in “My Fair Lady” is how we treat others and with what justification. This includes a complaint by (former) flower girl Eliza that Higgins would treat her poorly, while Pickering would treat a flower girl like a duchess—and Higgins retort that he would treat a duchess like a flower girl, which amounts to the same thing.*

*My memory of the exact details is a little vague and this recapitulation is a bit approximate. Note that both “like a duchess” and “like a flower girl”, in the original use, should be seen as at least partially metaphorical. (My memories of Shaw’s underlying “Pygmalion” are even vaguer, but I would be unsurprised if he had a similar theme.)

To some degree, Higgins has it right; to some degree, wrong.* This is well illustrated by the different approaches taken by the English (completed) and German (ongoing) reduction of the polite/familiar second-person pronouns to a single set of unified pronouns:

*And, to some degree, the discussion misses a more important point, because we should neither treat duchesses like duchesses, nor flower girls like flower girls, because of what status in society they have, but treat them according to what their actions, accomplishments, and whatnot warrant. Similarly, we should neither treat duchesses like flower girls, in a blanket manner, nor flower girls like duchesses—again, their actions (etc.) should decide. This point is worth keeping in mind for the below.

Back in the days, English had two sets* of pronouns, “you” and “thou”, while German still has the corresponding “Sie”** and “Du”***. The former indicated/s a certain degree of formality, politeness, deference, or similar; the latter familiarity, presumptuousness, condescension, or similar. (Depending on who speaks to whom, the language at hand, the period at hand, and whatnot.) In English, there was a subsequent drift towards greater politeness, “you” became ubiquitous, and “thou” died out. In current German, we see the reverse trend towards greater, often entirely unearned familiarity and great presumptuousness—“Sie” is dying out in favor of “Du”.

*I will only mention the “plain” singular and ignore both plural forms and variations like, in English, “your” and “thine”. (Adding the rest would only waste space and would force me to deal with differences in terminology and roles between English and German grammar, e.g. the juxtaposition of genitive and possessive and possessive case vs. possessive pronouns.)

**The similarity to English is closer than it might seem, if looking only at word shape and strict etymology, as both “you” and “Sie” also correspond to a plural form—a pattern which is quite common internationally.

***While “Sie”, in this sense, is always capitalized, both “Du” and “du” are in use, depending on context, personal preferences, and what the latest rulebook says. For simplicity and consistency with “Sie”, I use “Du” throughout this text. (However, typical modern use is heavily tilted towards “du”.)

It might now be argued that which pronoun wins out does not matter—a few hundred years after the switch, no-one will reflect over “you” being polite or “Du” familiar. Some (including me) might lament the loss of nuance that accompanied the switch from two to one, but the one pronoun is not logically* superior to the other. In those few hundred years, maybe even just a few generations, this might hold true, but the interim can be both a horror of rudeness and a missed opportunity to politeness. Notably, the main current driver behind the change in Germany appears to be the advertising industry, where ads increasingly presume to address prospective customers with “Du”—but if there is anyone that I would deny the privilege to use “Du”, it would be exactly the advertising industry, with its utter contempt for their fellow human beings, with a business model focused entirely on lies and manipulation in order to trick us into poor decisions. That these utter pieces of shit, not even worthy of being referred to as human beings, presume to use “Du” towards me (and the rest of the world) is utterly inexcusable.

*Some other aspects might be argued, however. Notably, “Du” is pronounced in an outright ugly manner (the English “do” comes close) unlike “Sie” (close to the English “see”), secondary grammatical changes to verb forms tend to be more awkward, and sentences using “Du” tend to be correspondingly uglier than those using “Sie”.

Here there has been a very clear change within the twenty-five years that I have lived in Germany, although the change was already well underway at the time. A key point is that the large presence of “Du” was a matter of consent at the time—not pure presumption from wild strangers. Non-adults could be called “Du” by strangers (including, of course, other non-adults), and some members of the really uneducated might have done the same to adults, but otherwise it was consent only. (And the more so, if we go back another few decades, with the reservation that a sufficient class difference might have allowed a one-sided downwards “Du”.) In a twist, I repeatedly encountered a commercial (!) during my early years where a poor fellow was put through so much trouble that he ended up screaming “Ich hasse Sie!” into a telephone—not “Ich hasse Dich!”, never mind how negative his feelings about the counterpart were.* At the time, being used to Swedish (cf. excursion) and English, this struck me as odd, as someone so hated did not deserve respect; today, as natural, as it goes beyond respect and enters the area of quasi-grammatically correct use. (Notwithstanding that someone could conceivably switch to “Dich” as a deliberate and explicit sign of great disrespect.)

*Both phrases mean “I hate you!”, but the one uses the polite form, the other the familiar. (“Dich” is the accusative case of “Du”; cf. “thou” and ‘thee” in “thou art a villain and I hate thee”.)

Here it would, likely, be best to keep the old division, but, if the division is to be removed, it is normal human decency to go the “over-polite” road of using “Sie” for everyone—not the rude and presumptuous road of using “Du” for everyone. Of course, the point of the advertising industry has nothing to do with human decency—only with cheap manipulation.

A similar development has taken place with the use of “Herr [family name]”/“Frau [family name]” as a natural, virtually mandatory way of addressing a stranger: a mere “[given name]” is becoming more and more common, especially from those who by rights should keep polite and respectful, like various business entities and advertisers. (And note that the arbitrariness argument does not hold here.) Here the English (language) development has a much smaller head start, but follows the same pattern of increasing disrespect, with “sir” having turned into “mister” and then outright rudeness, e.g. “man”.* (Likely, with the Yanks descending faster than the Brits.)

*As in e.g. “here you go, sir” vs. “[…], mister” and “[…], man”. Note how this reverses a prior tendency towards greater politeness, where words like “mister” and “sir” were extended to ever larger proportions of the population.

As to the reasons, I suspect at least the following: (a) The advertising/business driven attempt to manipulate the customers by creating a false sense of friendliness. (b) A far less perfidious/malign, but possibly misguided, attempt by employers to create a more welcoming and familiar atmosphere in the workplace, by encouraging (voluntary!) use of “Du” and given names in a professional setting. (c) The prolongation of childhood through ever more school years and an ever larger proportion of the population going to university, which implies that someone who might, in the past, have switched to a mostly “Sie” environment in his late teens, might now remain in a “Du” environment into his mid-twenties. (d) Attempts by (likely mostly Leftist) politicians, activists, idealists, etc. to push an “egalitarian” angle.

To expand on the last: Similarly issues are/were very common in Sweden, with attempts to abolish hierarchies and a more deliberate push to remove the polite “you” (but the Swedish situation is more complicated than the German, cf. excursion), a general drift to “everyone is equal”, etc. long predating the more global trend in the same direction. Communist countries are/were similar, e.g. by replacing words implying politeness, like “mister”, with more “egalitarian” versions, like “comrade”. Ditto the French revolutionaries and their “citizen”.* As to the underlying reason, apart from “idealistic egalitarianism”, I would speculate that the flatter the hierarchies and the less individual respect and power remains, the easier it is for the government to exert strong control.

*Here, and to some degree in older days in other countries, including the aforementioned Communist ones, the situation is not entirely comparable, as there was a greater division into groups who required different terms of address. In e.g. the Germany of my life-time, everyone adult merited a “Herr” resp. “Frau”, but older days saw asymmetries. Ditto e.g. the England of a Dickens novel.

Excursion on general lack of respect:
Variations of the word “respect” are common above—and for a reason. Not only is use of “Sie” partially a matter of respect, but there seems to be a catastrophic lack of respect for others and the rights of others in today’s world, for which “formal rudeness” is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a world of difference between even a position like “I look out for myself and don’t care about others—but I do not violate their rights” and “I don’t care about the rights of others”. Looking at how most people behave (in at least modern Germany) most seem to adhere to the latter philosophy, ranging from e.g. politicians and advertiser on one end to, on the other, bicyclists who ignore the most basic traffic rules and parents who let their children scream their heads off in libraries and restaurants—or, of course, shits who perform unannounced and loud construction works in an apartment building for weeks or months at a time.*

*A recurring issue with my current building. And, yes, I am going through another period with some construction work, although happily “just” the odd few hours every now and then. Today saw several of those hours. (And note that today is Saturday, a day where most residents can be assumed to be at home and trying to rest from the workweek—a day where such works would be particularly to avoid by someone who respected others.)

Excursion on Sweden:
As I noted above, the situation in Sweden is/was more complicated than in Germany. During my childhood, a “ni” existed in parallel to “du”, and was considered more polite, but has also been phased out. However, in even earlier days, “ni” appears to have been considered less polite, causing situations like a child addressing someone elderly with “ni”, trying to be extra polite and respectful, and coming across as rude and presumptuous. An earlier polite form of address was by the determinate form of a title, e.g. “kungen” for the king—meaning exactly “the king”. Those familiar were then addressed with “du”, while those unfamiliar/in a position requiring respect were addressed by this determinate form of a title. (This polite form is, today, restricted to the royalties, but old movies, for instance, might contain phrases like “Vad tycker ingenjören?” / “What does the engineer think?” spoken to, not about, the same engineer.) To make matters worse, I have read conflicting accounts of the historical developments. (More generally, the rules and history in different languages tend to grow more complicated the closer one looks; and claims about “yore” should always be taken with a grain of salt.)

Excursion on missed differentiation:
With both a drift towards greater and lesser politeness, an opportunity of expression is missed—and often one that goes beyond mere formalities. For instance, there were times when the move to “Du” between two Germans was a somewhat big deal, and where the one offering could express a genuine sentiment of friendship towards the other. Today, this opportunity is long gone, as even random colleagues are often included in a near blanket manner. It is like an award, diploma, whatnot, that used to be reserved for the deserving, but which is now handed out villy-nilly.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 3, 2022 at 3:31 pm

Race-denialism and the influence of words

with one comment

I have never been a fan of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, as it is invariably supported only by weak arguments and as its proponents often show a horrifying lack of insight, including the inability to understand the difference between a word and the concept that the word signifies.

However, there are individual cases where something similar can be relevant, especially among weak thinkers. One such case is the issue of human races vs dog/cat/horse/whatnot breeds—I have yet to hear anyone deny the existence of e.g. dog breeds, but contrafactual,* fanatical, and void-of-reason denials** of the existence of human races are quite common.

*As I have discussed repeatedly in the past, the “reasoning” used to speak against the concept of race in humans could also be used to invalidate other, widely accepted, concepts like hot and cold. Legitimate questions include when and whether race is a useful concept and whether “race” is a good word for race, but not whether races exist.

**Including the absurdist claim that “race is just a social construct”.

At the end of the day, this is the result of ardent political and ideological propaganda, but there is a strong chance that the different terminology used for e.g. humans and dogs in English has made this result possible or, at a minimum, easier for the propagandists to achieve.

If we look at my native Swedish, “race” and “breed” both translate as “ras”, and anyone denying the existence of human races would be hard pressed* to explain why the word would be inappropriate for human groupings that can interbreed and that diverged many thousands of years ago, while it is appropriate for dog groupings that can interbreed and that often diverged within the last few hundred years.** Chances are that even many young children would immediately be suspicious, as they remember adults speaking of races of dogs, cats, horses, cows, goats, rabbits, or similar.

*Not that this is a complete blocker—there is an enormous amount of doublethink and whatnot going on the Left in Sweden too.

**In both cases, speaking of generations would be more valuable, but the differences in life cycles and the varying length of a generation over time makes this tricky. However, if we use “dog years” as a first approximation, we could compare 200 years of dog breeding/evolution with 1400 years of human breeding/evolution, which implies (a) that human races are typically further or much further from each other than dog breeds, (b) that the effects of new mutations, as opposed to just selection, are likely to be correspondingly larger among humans.

Norwegian? The same—humans and dogs are both divided by “rase”.

German? “Rasse”.

Spanish? “Raza”.


Now, what if English had followed this example and used “race” for dogs or “breed” for humans? “That’s a dog—not a bulldog! There is no such thing as a bulldog! Bulldog is just a social construct!”

Excursion on the reason for terminology differences:
I have not attempted to find out why English has this differentiation, while Swedish does not, but I suspect that it partially relates to the ambiguity of terms like “dog race” (a type of dog or a competition between dogs), which would have existed in English but not in e.g. Swedish.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 18, 2022 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Our elites / Follow-up: Some unfortunate words and uses

leave a comment »

A belated-because-too-long excursion to Some unfortunate words and uses:

A potentially problematic word, and one which should be used much more rarely, is “elite[s]”:

Many of the sources that I read make complaints about e.g. “our elites” or “our ruling elites”. (For various, usually correct, reasons ranging from poor results to a “rules for thee, but not for me” mentality.) Sometimes, the use appears ironic, e.g. when someone with a known low opinion of the competence levels of the “elite” uses the word—and that might be, barely, acceptable. Similarly, sometimes a clear implication of “self-appointed elites consisting of Dunning-Kruger victims” shines through. (Such writers also often use “midwit” or some other more suitable term.) Less acceptable are many uses that seem to take “elite” largely at face value, often with implied or stated ideas of “if only the elites could walk a mile in our shoes” or “[some negative thing] proves that rule by an elite is bad—we must let the people have a greater say”.*

*Note, with an eye on the below, that I do not disagree with the idea that even a true elite might benefit from that mile or that even a true elite needs some type of democratic check.

The latter presuppose that the “elites” actually are elites by a meaningful standard, which is, mostly, a faulty assumption. By all means, a typical U.S. senator (or similar figure in the country at hand) is likely to be above average in both intelligence and education, but the step from there to a true (intellectual) elite is quite large. If we look at some famous U.S. politicians, are Biden,* Hillary, Harris, Pelosi, AOC, or even Obama persons of truly great intellect?** If so, they have hidden it well, as they appear unimpressive even by the standards of politicians. The situation among Big Business leaders (another group often included in these “elites”) might be better, but is still not what it could be—and an increasing proportion of “diversity hires” on the higher levels does not help. Do not get me started on large parts of the academic “elite”.

*Even discounting his apparent severe mental degradation.

**The examples are all Democrat. This because (a) the problem almost consistently appears to be worse on the Left, (b) the Democrats are currently in charge (=> ruling elite), (c) the aforementioned sources tend to be more negative about the Left. Many cases can be found among e.g. Republicans too, however.

Correspondingly, to take current political “elites” as a sign that rule by (real) elites would be a bad thing is incorrect. Speaking for myself, I would be much happier and much more willing to trust or comply with politicians if they were true elite. (And I am on record as a proponent of e.g. IQ cut-offs both for voting and for holding office.) Many of the problems we have arise simply from non-elites presuming to make decisions for others—many of whom are more intelligent, educated, informed, whatnot, than the self-appointed nannies.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 5, 2022 at 12:27 am