Tagged: word meanings Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • The Diacritics 6:00 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bill clinton, clinton, , , , , lewinsky, public apology, scandal, sex scandal, , , tiger woods, word meanings   

    #sorryimnotsorry: good apologies gone bad (Part 2/2) 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 1998, allegations that then-President Clinton had engaged in a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, compounded an ongoing grand jury trial investigating the president’s role in several unrelated political scandals.

    America’s attention immediately became fixed on the sex, of course; political intrigue can only hold the nation captivated for so long. President Clinton asserted that he hadn’t had “sexual relations” with Lewinsky, based on his understanding of the definition of the phrase. Because of the trial and Clinton’s alleged perjury during it, the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings, which were followed by a three-week trial in the Senate. The Senate trial concluded without a successful vote for impeachment. On August 17, Clinton acknowledged in a televised address that he had “misled people” with his testimony by telling the truth as it was asked for but not volunteering information. His statement lasted for a little over four minutes and 542 words.

    Clinton’s statement is part confession, part apology, and part justification. He confesses that he “did not volunteer information” and that he indeed “had a relationship … that was not appropriate.”

    For most Americans, this wasn’t the first time they had heard rumors that this was true, but it was the first time they had heard it directly from the president. It was new conclusive information, and Clinton was acknowledging responsibility. That part was a confession. Continuing, he apologizes for his actions, saying he “deeply regret[s]” that he had misled people.

    Clinton’s choice of “regret” in this sentence is curious because while he acknowledges that he is “solely and completely responsible,” the word “regret” has a shade of meaning which implies an absence of free will in an action. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “regret” states that it involves feeling “sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair.” One can regret something over which he has no control. One might regret more often in situations where one doesn’t have control, and one might be sorry or apologetic when one does have control.

    In the O.E.D., “regret” is defined in relation to “external circumstances or events” before it is defined in relation to “something one has done or omitted to do.” One could argue both sides.

    Of course, Austin’s second reason for studying excuses (see my previous post) is that our words are inadequate and arbitrary, and that we shouldn’t be troubled by this (“words are not … facts or things” [182])— so perhaps we should only take Clinton’s explicit admission of responsibility and ignore the shades of meaning in his word choice. While he might be a gifted craftsman of language (as many politicians are), his understanding of regret may not gel with ours.

    Finally, Clinton justifies why he answered questions the way he did: to protect his family, and to avoid giving personal answers in a politically inspired lawsuit.

    Interestingly, he finishes with a sort of scolding — attempting to make those who followed the sex scandal feel guilty for doing so, and chastising his detractors for confusing private and public life and distracting the nation when, he says, there are more important things to be done. This does not form part of his overall apologetic statement, but it does add an interesting twist, returning the moral high ground to himself — because while he did something wrong, his opponents were wrong to pursue it in the contexts they did.

    And he doesn’t only put the weight on his opponents, but on his whole audience, encouraging them to move past this and return to working on “the promise of the next American century” — a task which no American would actively ignore. By saying this, Clinton shifts the discourse from private to public at the end.

    The first rough third of Clinton’s statement is given over mostly to establishing his guilt and confessing about his behavior. He explicitly expresses “regret” only once, at the end of the first third. In the second third, he attempts to explain his motivation for hiding his behavior. And at the end, he spends the last third of his total time engaging in a scolding of his listeners and detractors. This distribution is curious — the actual “apologetic” part of his statement is only two-thirds of the total. This fact gives us some insight into the machinations of Clinton’s mind at the time — his shame, his sorrow, and finally his defiance.

    When the many mistresses of golfer Tiger Woods, a man who had been (until then) one of the few sports superstars unsullied with professional or personal scandals, came forward in late 2009 with their stories, the media erupted with rumors, photographs, and details. This was exciting; this was new; this was a brilliant chance to expose the failings of a celebrity who had been very guarded about his personal life. At first, Woods didn’t acknowledge or deny his actions; soon afterward, he made a brief statement acknowledging some “personal failings” but didn’t offer any details. Finally, on February 19, 2010, over three months after suggestions of his affairs first came to light, he delivered a 14-minute, 1,521-word statement acknowledging guilt and promising atonement.

    Woods’s apologetic statement comprises all four of our categories: it is part excuse, part justification, part apology, and part confession. This is the first time in public he has acknowledged the extent of his extramarital affairs. He spends much of his time excoriating himself, lambasting his character failings, and promising change.

    Like Clinton, who referenced his relationship to God and his family as the only relevant ones in dealing with his personal transgressions, Woods invokes his faith, Buddhism, as a reason the public can be assured he’ll atone and behave well. This appeal to a higher power, while it might be genuine, is also convenient: no one can deny a man his most personal relationship to his religion. Whether Clinton, Woods, and others are truly atoning for their transgressions in the context of their religions is not something which the public can (easily) challenge.

    In 1,521 words, Woods says “sorry” just three times — “so sorry,” “deeply sorry,” and “truly sorry.”

    It seems to have become the norm to qualify “sorry” in apologies, because there seems to be a general acknowledgment that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough — one needs to be “deeply sorry” or “profoundly sorry” or to “sincerely apologize,” because being “sorry” or simply “apologizing” doesn’t properly convey the type of apology that the speaker believes the situation demands.

    So Bill Clinton “deeply regret[s]” his actions and Tiger Woods is “deeply sorry” for his behavior. Indeed, it would probably seem empty if Clinton just “regretted” or Woods just said he was “sorry” — those words are tossed around easily, the public believes, and they don’t suffice. One needs to add an adverb, a qualifier, an indication that the apology is genuine (“genuinely sorry”) because the terms “sorry” and “apologize,” presumably after countless apologies over the years, have lost their emotive force.

    Austin notices this: “it is interesting to find that a high percentage of the terms connected with excuses prove to be adverbs” (187).

    It is notable that Woods waits until almost a third of the way through his apologetic statement to explicitly say what he did: “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated.” Until then, he was speaking generally about his misbehavior and his shame.

    He also offers a few explanations for what he did. Are Woods’s arguments that he acted the way he did because “felt that [he] had worked hard [his] entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around [him]” excuses or justifications?

    Out of context, one could argue that those remarks are simply excuses. But because Woods is not shunning responsibility elsewhere in his statement — “I brought this shame upon myself” — we can more easily argue that he is justifying his actions: offering explanations but not avoiding culpability. And finally, like Clinton, Woods transfers the weight onto the listener — “I am asking for your help” — and shifts the discourse from private to public. He’s not absolving himself totally of responsibility but he’s adding some responsibility for the audience.

    The first half of Woods’s statement is given over to a self-excoriation and the second half is spent explaining the motivations behind his behavior. Unlike Clinton, Woods never shifts blame or scolds; he only excuses, confesses, apologizes, and attempts to justify.

    I wonder if this is because of the different roles they play in the public sphere — Clinton is a chosen official, so one could argue that he stands on ground high enough to scold others; Woods was never chosen to be a public figure, and so he never had that sort of moral position.

    Woods is not unaware of his public role. The fact that he was so secretive about his personal affairs before recently shows that he has (or had) a good understanding of how to maintain his image. And as a part of that understanding, Woods is aware that he does not have the moral ground, like Clinton might, to scold the media and public for following his private life so closely.

    On the other hand, Clinton was elected by the public to serve the public — and a distraction from that, Clinton might feel, doesn’t only harm himself but the country. The fact that Clinton holds an elected position might give him the moral force to not just apologize but to chastise.

    Why do personal, private transgressions of behavior warrant public apologetic statements? Well, the traditional argument goes, public figures must apologize to those who viewed them as role models, since a figure’s behavior, in harming his/her image as a role model, has harmed his/her audience.

    And it’s quite obvious that sexual transgressions are the most popular. Sex sells — and sexual deviancy is particularly frowned upon in our society, more so than other personal or professional misbehavior.

    Austin deals with excuses because they are of great importance — not just from a philosophical point of view (in terms of moral language), but also from legal standpoint. Sometimes accused people issue apologetic statements after it’s impossible to be prosecuted for a misdeed. O.J. Simpson, who was embroiled in the legal proceedings involving the murder of his ex-wife and another man, wrote a book called If I Did It several years after charges against him had been dropped.

    The book was widely interpreted as a confession, but since charges had been dropped Simpson couldn’t incriminate himself. Excuses aren’t just a part of everyday language; they are an important part of formal, prescribed language as well.

    The differences between the apologetic statements of Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton, ostensibly for the same type of offense, can be understood well in terms of the roles that each public figure plays. Woods, an athlete who wasn’t chosen or didn’t choose to enter the public eye, doesn’t have the sort of moral sway that Clinton, a chosen official, has.

    And so that’s why the timbre of each apologetic statement is different — Woods is solemn and shameful, and Clinton is sorrowful at the beginning and defiant at the end. Clinton can afford to be brief; Woods elaborates. Clinton can look away from his audience; Woods must hold a press conference. And Woods is beholden to include all four elements of the apologetic statement, whereas Clinton does not have to excuse himself.

    What are your thoughts on public apologies? Should public figures have to make them at all? And if they’re missing one of the four categories outlined in my previous post (excuses, justifications, apologies, confessions), does that remove some of their power? Are some categories more persuasive?

    • Bander Alfraikh 8:04 am on October 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      This relates to morality and how each one of us conceive it to be. Mr. Clinton’s defence came mainly from his abilities as a lawyer. In all the procedings involving his act he showed himself to be a shrewed lawyer. One can say his “skill” was a bit ahead of his “virtue”. Woods was no less skillful when he cited Budhism. Sex does not carry the same cononative burdens in Budhism. Some may have taken Woods to be feeling sorry and apolegetic; I thought he was justifying. The consequences of both acts are different for both of them. The decisions they took in the form of apology were shaped by the fear of those consequences .

  • The Diacritics 10:07 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , word meanings   

    These United States 

    (Posted by John)

    Like a good law student, I was perusing my Constitutional Law book today. Along the way, I found a sort of linguistic diamond in the rough:

    “Prior to the Civil War, ‘the United States’ was treated as a plural noun. In Dred Scott, for example, the Court referred to a federal statute passed during the War of 1812 that referred to ‘the war in which the United States are engaged.’  After the Civil War, by contrast, ‘the United States’ became a singular noun.” Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet, and Karlan. Constitutional Law,6th Ed. Aspen Publishers. 2009. p 451

    When I read this, I was immediately reminded of Sandeep’s post on the linguistic legacy of 9/11, where he discusses the effects wars have had on our language.  The change from “are” to “is” that the Civil War brought about is minuscule in size, but ginormous in meaning. It reflects a profound reinterpretation of the relationship between one state and another, as well as between the states and the federal government. The shift marks the real beginning of the public’s acknowledgment that the federal government would expand its control over the states. Personally, I think it’s super cool that this tiny linguistic indicator is as important as any analysis of federal statutes or court opinions in figuring out when this trend began.

    Oh, and don’t forget to vote for The Diacritics here for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011!!

    • The Diacritics 10:22 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Interesting! Also, what about colloquially referring to the United States as “the states”? The last instance of “the states” as referring to the U.S. in the OED is in 1890. Of course, people still do use it today. I have a hunch, though, that “the states” is more common outside of this country than inside it. I wonder if that’s a cultural thing that’s associated with the post-Civil War shift you reference here. –Sandeep

      • The Diacritics 1:05 pm on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Sandeep, here’s a test for whether “the states” is being used as the states collectively or as a shortened form of “the United States” (so “the States”)

        (1) I’m from the states, which is a good place to live.
        (2) *I’m from the states, which are a good place to live.
        (3) I’m from the states, which is currently experiencing difficult economic times.
        (4) *I’m from the states, which are currently experiencing difficult economic times.

        I like (1) and (3), thus the asterisks before (2) and (4). Those really do sound wrong to me. If you agree, then it does just look like we’re saying “the States” as a shortened form of the singular United States.

        I chose those examples, because, interestingly enough, I have trouble with the simpler sentences you might think to use as a test, in (5) and (6) below.

        (5) ?The states is an awesome place.
        (6) ???The states are an awesome place.

        I think the fact that these sound weird, but (6) worse than (5), is evidence that we are trying to use “the states” singularly. But it gets complicated, and thus the sentences sound weird, because “the states” is typically a plural syntactic object (unlike the United States, which is now a singular entry in the lexicon). We get around this problem by placing some syntactic barriers between “the states” and its verb (i.e. the complementizer ‘which’). This lets us use “the States” (as a stand-in for the United States) without confounding it syntactically with the homophonous “the states.” Or something like that….


    • Sam 10:47 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here’s a quick-and-dirty check of Google Ngram Viewer, which appears to support the claim (though with a transition date in the 1870s rather than 1860s): http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/ngrams/graph?content=The+United+States+is%2CThe+United+States+are&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

      (The search is case-sensitive, so the uppercase “T” in “the” eliminates noise from occurrences within phrases like “the powers of the United States are,” which otherwise will swamp the signal.)

    • johnwcowan 11:23 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Americans refer to “the States” only when they are somewhere else.

      The OED cannot be safely trusted for 20th-century quotations. Even though the upper right corner says “Second edition, 1989”, only new words and new senses were added in that edition; that text is almost certainly unrevised OED1. Volume 9 part 1, which contained state, was published in 1919, but the underlying fascicle or installment containing the word, namely standard to stead, was published in 1915, so it’s unlikely that any quotations would be added thereafter.

      • The Diacritics 6:25 pm on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Do you have a source for your first assertion? That’s what I suggested in my earlier comment above, but I don’t have any actual data.

    • Bander Alfraikh 3:29 am on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Perhaps the most current word during the Civil War was Union, a singular word harbingering the shift from plural to singular in reference to the “States”. The shifts and shades of meaning words receive are often socio-cultural in nature as in this case although it is syntax that is affected here.

    • Josiah 3:55 am on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Love this post. Something I’ve been thinking about, particularly in light of all the current political happenings in our country. I’m not sure if I remember correctly but I think “Remember the Titans” referenced on this idea once. Awesome post!

    • Richard White 8:29 am on September 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Cf., inter alia, the following Language Log entries: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and


      Richard White

    • Bander Alfraikh 2:45 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I am also reminded here of similar constructions in Old English. The word “woman” was treated as masculine simply because the word ends with -man. Similarly, the United states ends in a plural, therefore, it should take the verb in the plural. This was the prevailing view of the prescriptive grammarins then. It would be equally interesting to find out if a word like “police” took “are” or “is” during the same period, the late 1890’s.

      • johnwcowan 11:31 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Not “simply because”, but because “woman” is a compound of “wife” (meaning “woman”) and “man”. Compounds take the grammatical gender of the last element in all Germanic languages that retain grammatical gender.

  • The Diacritics 10:03 pm on September 16, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: carnatic music, jonsi, , , non-lexical vocables, sigur ros, word meanings   

    Nonsense, utter nonsense! 

    Posted by Sandeep

    I’ve lately been listening to a lot of music by the Icelandic singer Jónsi and his band, Sigur Rós. Most of his songs are in Icelandic, but he does have a couple of songs in English, too. I’ve found his music to be a great study companion in law school because I can’t be distracted by the lyrics — I don’t understand a lick of Icelandic (although, as a Germanic language, it does have plenty of features in common with English).

    It turns out that Icelanders can’t understand a lot of his lyrics, either. In many of his songs, Jónsi uses a made-up language called Vonlenska in Icelandic, directly translated into English as “Hopelandic” (von “hope” + –lenska “-landic,” from íslenska Icelandic). On Sigur Rós’s official website, Hopelandic is described:

    hopelandic (vonlenska in icelandic) is the ‘invented language’ in which jónsi sings before lyrics are written to the vocals. it’s of course not an actual language by definition (no vocabulary, grammar, etc.), it’s rather a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument.

    A Wikipedia author also described Hopelandic:

    … it consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language.

    Jónsi uses Hopelandic to create moods and exploit rhythms without the lyrical burden of language. It’s interesting to consider language a burden, rather than a vital component, in music — at least in some contexts.

    Here’s one of Sigur Rós’s biggest hits, “Hoppípolla” (literally, “hopping in puddles,” from hoppa + í + polla. Isn’t it crazy how similar Germanic languages are?). The lead singer Jónsi uses Hopelandic from 2:25-2:50 and again from 3:03 onwards.

    Hopelandic is far from the only example of “non-lexical vocables” used in music. In fact, we use these nonsense words in music all the time — we say “la la la” when we can’t remember the lyrics to a song, we sing scat in jazz, and we use nonsense words like “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” in famous songs!

    Perhaps most fundamentally, in Western music we use syllables like “do,” “re,” and “mi” to describe relative pitches, known as solfege. Indian classical music has an analogous system to describe relative pitches, using the seven syllables sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, collectively known as sargam. (Strictly speaking, these syllables, both in Western and Indian music, aren’t random syllables — they are supposedly derived from longer words, but in the context of music they’re pretty much meaningless.)

    I wonder, too, if the use of non-lexical vocables in music hints at the origins of lyrical music — maybe our distant ancestors began singing using nonsense syllables, later moving on to actual lyrics.

    Indian classical music uses these non-lexical vocables quite a bit:  there’s a type of composition called a tillāna (in South Indian music) or tarāna (North Indian) in which nonsense syllables are used in lieu of actual lyrics, in order to exploit extraordinarily complex rhythms. Tillānas usually accompany dance. Here’s an example. The song is sung with these nonsense rhythmic syllables like dheem, ta-na, and jha:

    There’s also a whole type of performance in South Indian music called ragam-tanam-pallavi, of which the big middle chunk, the tanam, consists of exploring the mood of a particular scale solely on the nonsense syllables ta and nam, derived from the word and concept anantam, “without end.” To be able to do a proper ragam-tanam-pallavi is considered the pinnacle of musical performance in South India.

    In my experience as a singer, non-lexical vocables are incredibly emotive and liberating for the singer: we can focus entirely on the mood and the rhythm of the music, rather than the words. This is especially true in forms of music like jazz, which love to focus on the emotive and complex rhythmic aspects of performance. Indian classical music places an extremely high premium on the emotional power of music — often to the exclusion of the lyrics, especially in North Indian music. I’ve seen plenty of singers get so lost in the emotion of their performance that they resort to non-lexical vocables instead of the real lyrics. Audiences love it when that happens!

    Who knew that our hapless la-la-las had such illustrious cousins?

    • Dan 4:33 am on September 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Not so keen on the first video – it reminded me of an advertisement for a mobile phone company – but the second was truly astonishing. Thanks.

    • Bander Alfraikh 1:30 pm on September 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      You are right. The ancestor to these ” non-lexical vocables” may be found in Akkadian alala/ alalu which is simply a harvest, work song according to the Akk. Dictionary of the Assoc. Assyrophile de France. The same syllables are also found in Arabic songs.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , word meanings   

    Frenemy, pls refudiate haters 

    Posted by Sandeep

    Around every new year, I have fun looking at different dictionaries’ and publications’ lists of “the new words” of the year. Sociolinguistic commentators always have a field day around every January: Some loudly lament the decline of English, and others marvel at the flexibility of our language. Everyone seems to love a good invective against modern society—but why do we care about change in language so much?

    Natural systems are dynamic; any scientist will argue that. But most things man-made—from buildings to morals—strive to achieve an intrinsic stability. Nature fluctuates, but the concrete and the abstract of man-made creations are designed to be constant. Language, one of the most fundamentally human of characteristics, straddles this dichotomy. It is at once a natural system encoded into society and into the human brain—an ability to process and synthesize communicative gestures of the same species—as well as a synthetic system based on arbitrarily assigning sounds and symbols to the human experience.

    As such, language might be torn between natural drift and conscious shift in ways that no mathematical or historical model will ever be able to describe or predict.

    Amid this complexity, change in language—a perceived or documented shift in semantics, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or writing—has engaged humanity because it is associated with some of the most important elements of the human condition: culture, identity and the origin of man.

    We know at least some of the why of language change. Cultures attack, conquer and interact with one another. Language academies are created and maintained for the explicit purpose of standardizing written and spoken forms because there’s a historically and geographically universal perception that society in general and language in particular is falling precipitously from a refined past. Certain forms of grammar and vocabulary are stigmatized and others are praised; the same ones might be conversely mocked and admired by different groups. The inherent variability in the human experience, a necessary component for any change, allows that when different cultures interact, there is a productive exchange of ideas and language.

    This is all well and good. We can name what has happened and offer some explanations as to why these changes occurred. I have shown above that language is inconstant: This much every linguistics student knows. But if language is a man-made system, then it was created to be constant. Man works toward homeostasis.

    Language, ostensibly, arose because certain neural pathways more complex than those of our predecessors allowed for abstract thought and the use of symbols. This adaptive development allowed for complex social interactions and communication that made one Homo species more fit than another.

    And yet, as humans, we—by the same or different neural mechanisms—are capable of reflection on our behavior in a way that hasn’t been observed in other animals. So for the entire history of our species, where we are today is as much a product of natural forces as it is deliberate choice. Taken into context, if humans use language to communicate, and if language is useless without facilitating communication, then we ask why vocabulary isn’t finite and syntax isn’t fixed—this would seem to be the most effective way to ensure meaningful interaction. But the point is that it’s not.

    This problem has occupied researchers and still isn’t resolved—but will it ever be?

    It seems to me that change in language might be such a complex, multifaceted, multivariable process that we may never be able to understand how all of the forces work together in one whole, coherent way such that we’ll be able to competently describe or predict past and future change in every respect. Language is natural and synthetic and neither, and it displays trends characteristic of both and none. Human behavior, the human mind and human interactions are all inconceivably complex variables. Linguists might always be consigned to dividing up language change into neat parcels and analyzing the hell out of each. This might not be such a desperate thing to do.

    As long as we recognize that the entirety of language change defies conclusive explanation, we can concern ourselves with functional explanations of certain trends in a way that is useful and productive.

    Even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms and processes of language change, it would be silly to believe that our language is declining: It’s difficult to objectively characterize any change as degradation. We’re not moving toward some end-goal, no matter what sort of a harbinger the “texting generation” is. The truth is that every generation has always experienced language change and called it decline. Change is just change.

    As far as I’m concerned, the “new words of the year” lists are only useful in reminding me how woefully square (we’re still using that word, right?) I am.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on January 13, 2011.)

    • JP 9:57 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Like this piece, except, maybe, the third paragraph. It works well rhetorically, but we don’t really know that. Got here via languagehat.com and think I will be a regular..:-) Saudações from Brazil.

    • johnwcowan 3:45 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Well, we don’t always seek homeostasis. In particular, we know that some language change happens in order to differentiate an in-group: notable cases are the characteristic Martha’s Vineyard phonology, which is actually more common in young people now than it is among their parents (who were trying to assimilate to off-islander English), and the Northern Cities Chain Shift, which seems to be a way of differentiating white Northern Americans from black Americans and Canadians.

      • The Diacritics 11:34 am on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Right. There are a few really well-known examples of people consciously changing their speech. What I meant to say was that at any given point, people want stability in their language — it wouldn’t do to have the meaning of, say, “table” change from day to day. We seek homeostasis in describing our world within our communities.

  • The Diacritics 5:10 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , word meanings   

    The tomato: fruit or vegetable? 

    posted by John

    Most of us know that the scientific classification of the tomato is that it is a fruit. But, of course, we also know that it’s not quite like an orange, an apple, or a plum. I once heard it said:

    Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is never putting it in a fruit salad.

    What does that statement actually mean? If we unpack it just a little bit, we get something like the following: that although we know technically speaking, tomatoes are the juicy, seed-bearing part of the plant, and that makes them a fruit, we nevertheless consider them to be vegetables (and thus a better part of, say, a garden salad than a fruit salad).

    It turns out that the United States Supreme Court agrees. And in 1893, ten years after the Tariff Act of 1883 was passed, they were called on to decide the question as a legal matter. The tariff was to be imposed on the importation of vegetables, but not on fruits, so when John Nix was forced to pay duties on tomatoes he imported from the West Indies, he sued. This is what the Court found:

    Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine . . . But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert. (NIX v. HEDDEN, 149 U.S. 304 (1893))

    What the Court took to be the true meaning of the word ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ did not turn on its technical definition. It turned, rather, on its common usage: because it is widely understood to function more like a veggie than a fruit, the tomato should be considered a vegetable for the purposes of the tariff.

    In some ways, this makes sense. The Court was deciding how the tomato should be treated with respect to a tariff on vegetable imports. Thus if something is widely treated as a vegetable in terms of its economic use (garden but not fruit salads), then perhaps it makes good sense to treat it as such within the confines of the tariff. This was the Court’s reasoning, at least, and I generally think I agree with it. But come on; in other ways, it’s utter madness! If something is a fruit, it’s a fruit. Mass misunderstanding of that fact doesn’t make it less true.

    This conflict is related to Sandeep’s earlier post about Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of language—language doesn’t mean whatever we decide we want it to. But as Nix v. Hedden shows, our opinions and common conceptions of words nevertheless matter. To some extent, conventional meaning really determines literal meaning.

    As a former anti-vegetable child, I like that, and I think it gives hope to future generations of vegetable-averse kids: with a little persistence, maybe someday apples will count too.

    • The Diacritics 8:18 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Really interesting point. This is kind of the opposite of the point I made in the Humpty Dumpty piece. Here, it’s kind of like the general population pushing for a new meaning separate from the specialized (scientific) term instead of the specialized term pushing away from the general meaning.

      Unless people have always been calling tomatos vegetables. Shoot. This is like a chicken-or-egg thing, only it’s like fruit-or-vegetable. I wonder whether the Aztecs classified tomatoes as fruits or vegetables. Maybe they didn’t even have a binary classification like that.

      Oh… and, it’ll be a dark, dark day for children everywhere when apples are called vegetables.

      Finally, here is an apparently delicious fruit salad recipe with tomatoes: http://www.not-just-recipes.com/tomato-fruit-salad.html


      • The Diacritics 8:29 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        But apples taste good! So if we could convince everyone that they were vegetables, children everywhere could satisfy their veggie requirement with something delicious!

    • Bathrobe 8:04 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “But come on; in other ways, it’s utter madness! If something is a fruit, it’s a fruit.”

      Depends on your definition of ‘fruit’. Just because a scientist defines it as a ‘fruit’, using a different definition of ‘fruit’ from the usual one, doesn’t make his definition right. In fact, the scientist should leave the words ‘fruit’ and ‘vegetable’ out of it and coin his own word if he wants to create a semantic category that is at odds with ordinary usage. (I use ‘he’ because somehow it seems more likely that the perpetrators of this kind of violence on ordinary language are men.)

  • The Diacritics 1:07 pm on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alice in wonderland, , , , , humpty dumpty, just a theory, , , legal analysis, , speech community, word meanings,   

    Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of words 

    posted by Sandeep

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

    A lot of legal analysis hinges on the technical meanings of words. These definitions can be identified by statute (for example, if a government explicitly defines a criminal law term in its penal code) and by common law (what have previous courts decided that same term means?).

    If neither statutory law nor common law have defined a legal concept, lawyers and courts can also look to a dictionary definition, although this is rare. Nearly three centuries of accumulated law in the United States, building on even more centuries of law in Great Britain, have meant that almost all broad legal concepts have been defined and analyzed. The legal profession even has its own dictionaries — I, myself, just bought a fresh new copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.

    Today in my Criminal Law class, we discussed the meanings of words. Much of the discussion focused on the dichotomy between voluntary and involuntary acts. In common parlance, “voluntary” and “involuntary” have broad meanings: “voluntary” indicates some sort of will or want to achieve an end result. “Involuntary” indicates the absence of that will.

    But in the context of the law, the definitions are much narrower. Understanding these narrow senses is critical to forming an adequate defense to a criminal act. Let’s say John accidentally hit a pedestrian with his car. In normal conversation, we might describe John’s act as “involuntary” because he certainly didn’t mean to hit the pedestrian.

    But in the eyes of the law, a criminal act can’t be considered “involuntary” just because it is unintentional or the actor didn’t foresee potential consequences. Understanding what “involuntary” means is important because the law cannot punish “involuntary” acts.

    “No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily … The term “involuntary act” is, however, capable of wider connotations; and to prevent confusion … in the criminal law an act is not … an involuntary act simply because the doer does not remember it … nor … simply because the doer could not control his impulse to do it.”

    Bratty v. Attorney-General, 1963 A.C. 386, 409-410 (H.L. 1961)

    So wait. John could face years in prison for something we understand as “involuntary”? [Fear not, John–you would probably just get off with involuntary manslaughter, not murder!] Because the law is concerned with what our conscious mind causes us to do, an “involuntary” act cannot encompass things done with a conscious mind, even by accident or under duress, so its definition is narrowed to acts conducted while unconscious, asleep, hypnotized, or seizing. This definition is confusing enough, but to add to the confusion, sometimes the criminal law switches between the colloquial use of “involuntary” and the strict legal definition!

    Ugh! So how does a simple word like “involuntary” have so many conflicting meanings?

    Technical jargon sometimes conflicts with popular understandings of what a word means. When a specialized technical register exists (say, in law or in science), it often develops independently of colloquial usage, mainly because the technical and colloquial register would never interact with each other. So we might imagine a legal scholar ages and ages ago, grappling with the idea of unconscious criminal acts, coming up with two types of acts: involuntary and voluntary, based on the popular understanding of those terms. Over time, other legal scholars might have found limitations in the popular definitions and sought to narrow down their meanings. When the two worlds collide (in John’s criminal trial proceedings, for example), we get confused at the strange, specific usage of apparently familiar terms.

    Another popular example of this discrepancy between popular and technical jargon is the term “theory.” In scientific research, a “theory” is a model used to explain a natural phenomenon. A theory must stand up to rigorous testing and extensive peer-reviewed research before it can be called as such.

    In contrast, our popular understanding of the word “theory” is closer to the meaning of “hypothesis”–an unproved hunch about how a natural phenomenon might work. Disparaging the theory of evolution by natural selection, for example, as “just a theory” subscribes to this colloquial sense, even though evolution by natural selection, like other scientific theories (e.g., the theory of gravitation, germ theory), is a nearly-universally-accepted model of how a natural phenomenon works.

    But why the discrepancy? Why can’t we just all agree that a word means what it means?

    Complex social and individual forces determine the particular meaning ascribed to a word. As I have described above, the same word might mean different things in different contexts. The same word might also carry different social valence in various groups (such as the N-word among some African-Americans versus other racial groups, or vulgar profanity among some social classes versus others).

    Whether a word can have an inherent, inalienable meaning is hotly debated among linguists. I am skeptical that a word can ever have an inherent meaning. Some language prescriptivists (see John’s great post about Americanisms below), especially dictionary authors, believe otherwise.

    Dictionaries record definitions that are meant to document common usages, to be used in a particular speech community at a particular time. An English dictionary from the year 800 (if it existed) would be useless to us today [whether that language could be considered English at all is another topic altogether]. Several entries in a British dictionary would be useless in America today, and vice versa. Do you know what “pukka” means? It’s a word in Indian English: ostensibly a variety of the same language we know, but loaded with terms whose meanings we will never be able to deduce without context or explication.

    Indeed, context is crucial for deducing what particular meaning you are referring to– not only technical contexts (such as law) but also the speech community, register, geographic location, social class, ethnicity, etc. When I say “table,” am I referring to the thing with a flat surface and four (or three? or six?) supporting legs? Or am I telling you to “table” a discussion for our next meeting? Or am I studying the water “table”? Going to “table” for my local non-profit? Maybe “table” is New Jersey slang for the shape of The Situation’s hair.

    Language changes. Languages changes across contemporaneous speech communities (so my New Jersey terminology might be slightly different from John’s Virginia vocab) but it also changes over time. For example, many of the words we use today are derived from French terms (whose origins themselves are in Latin, and so on and so on) with narrower, broader, or completely different senses than their present English definitions.

    Words cannot have inherent meanings when their very existence is so tenuous and malleable.

    Lewis Carroll, in creating the character of Humpty Dumpty (see above), suggested the doctrine of “stipulative definition,” meaning that we can make words mean whatever we want, as long as we explain ourselves beforehand. Scholar Michael Hancher (in the linked article) disagrees, saying that a word’s meaning must be constructed by the commons — we all must agree on what a word means, and by doing so, we give it meaning. This becomes a complex, thorny issue when we consider how many different “commons”–that is, speech communites–exist in our world.

    So, Humpty Dumpty, a word can’t be just what you make it to mean. Sorry. We all have to come to a consensus in each of the languages we speak, whether in a colloquial context (John hit the pedestrian involuntarily) or in a technical context (John did not commit an involuntary act) or in some other context.

    Navigating this wonderful, awful complexity, I think, is one of the privileges, and prices, of participating in many different speech communities at once. The alternative, of course, is living in isolation, like Humpty Dumpty (and we know how that turned out…).

    • The Diacritics 5:34 pm on August 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary, but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.” [In simpler terms: the usefulness of dictionaries in a courtroom is limited, because statutes may have specific, unique meanings in mind. –s.p.] — Judge Learned Hand, Cabell v. Markham, 148 F. 2d 737

    • johnwcowan 10:58 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Note that table a discussion (or motion) means something different in North America than elsewhere: to take something off the table, rather than to put it on the table.

    • stuartnz 5:18 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Did Lewis Carroll suggest the doctrine of stipulative definition, or was he mocking it, in a sort of reductio ad absurdum style? At least one Carroll biographer I’ve read suggests the latter, which would fit with his mathematician’s prescriptivist pedantry.

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc