Saturday, February 11, 2006


A few recent posts have gotten me thinking about a word problem. Don't worry, not like math, actually a problem relating to words and phrases. There are some words out there whose common or contemporary meaning clashes with an older or literal meaning. I'm not talking about cases where the meaning has just changed over time, I'm talking about where there is actually the potential for bona fide conflict.

Specifically, I'm thinking of cases where the problem has real political or philosophical impacts. For example, when I premised my review of Prayers for the Assassin on its assault on liberalism, someone called me out and said that actually, American leftists aren't liberals--using the philosophical definition of classical liberalism as a guidepost. Now, I actually think most American liberals are more "liberal" than conservatives, but the point is that these terms are easily hijacked by really aggravating people who think they're making a clever point, despite the fact that none of us had any say in the development of our political lexicon. Similarly, David Bernstein has a post up about Juan Cole using the phrase "anti-Semitism" to refer to racism against Arabs, on the grounds that they're a "Semitic" people too. Of course he's technically right, and I'll grant that the choice of terminology used to refer to anti-Jewish sentiment was unfortunate, but seriously. Nearly everybody knows what "anti-Semitism" is meant to refer to in these contexts, and the use of it otherwise is simply distortive.

Are there any other words where these problems come up?


Ampersand said...

There's the undying mix-up, in abortion debates, in which pro-choicers use the word "human" to mean "person" and pro-lifers take it to mean "biologically of the human species."

Anonymous said...

I can think of a few other examples:

1) The most obvious one is that "Muslim" and "Islamist" are still quite often taken to mean the same thing (which I suspect is the main reason why, on the right side of the blogosphere at least, "Islamofascist" has become the preferred substitute for the latter, although I myself prefer "Islamic supremacist").

2) Along the same lines, the Bush administration, and all too many MSM journalists and even some bloggers tend to characterize Muslims who share al Qaeda's theocratic worldview (CAIR comes to mind) as "moderates" just because they don't engage in terrorism. This points up a still-vexing uncertainty over whether a "moderate Muslim" is defined by the specifics of his beliefs themselves, or merely by the means by which they advance those beliefs.

3) I seem to recall that during the 2004 presidential campaign, certain commentators would sometimes facetiously refer to Teresa Heinz Kerry as an African-American, which was technically true on account of her being born in some African nation (Mozambique, IIRC) but which was often roundly criticized nonetheless.