Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Exactitude in Terminology

“A word for which everyone has a different definition, usually unstated, ceases to serve the function of communication and its use results in futile arguments about nothing.  There is also a sort of Gresham’s Law for words; redefine them as we will, their worst or most extreme meaning is almost certain to remain current and to tend to drive out the meaning we might prefer.”

-- George Gaylord Simpson
   The Major Features of Evolution (1953).

"Imbricated discourses" is a sign of in-group jargon rather than clear thinking: no one can agree exactly on what it means or how "imbricated" is distinct from "partially overlapping" (to recap earlier arguments, "imbricated" means "overlapping just like the tiles on a roof," i.e., the same amount of overlap on each tile.  No one, to my knowledge, has explained how discourses could be like this or how we would measure--or even observe--to be sure they were.  Thus "imbricated" is a bad metaphor, one that confuses thought rather than clarifying it, and it fails even as a way to avoiding repetition-- for example, saying "overlapping" again and again--because it is opaque to most readers and incorrect in its details.


Anonymous said...

I agree completely (and I really agree with the arguments you put forth in your older posts against theory fads and theory words). The fact of the matter is this: academia is filled with charlatans today. English departments are essentially monolingual and most of the scholars populating them are notably unlearned. Few know Latin, even fewer know Greek - therefore they glibly use words like "imbricated" without the slightest clue as to its precise meaning. We live in a lamentable age of unlearned charlatans. Thank goodness there are still some Anglo-Saxonists around to make the situation a little better. Without Anglo-Saxonists, things would really be doomed for English departments. Many other humanities departments put the English department to shame: a doctoral student in Classics is probably more learned, more clear-minded, and more intense in his scholarship than half the faculty in the English department (and the graduate students look like high schoolers in comparison to him). Only the Anglo-Saxonist can compete.

Anonymous said...

So nice to see Gresham's Law making it out into the mainstream! That said, it really doesn't work in this metaphor (which I realise was Simpson's not yours). If this were a case of Gresham's Law then the good and useful words would be disappearing because people were stashing them for use later in hard times or for sale to other vocabularies that lacked good useful words of their own. Thankfully, words aren't like property (except, oddly, digital property); you can give them away and still have them. Money, not so much.