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Language Lab

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2016-02-26 14:22. Updated on UTC 2016-02-26

Coping with change

Do you ever use the word decimate? Or the phrase beg the question? In which case, whose side are you on: the angry pedants or the ignorant thickos?

To decimate

The pedants are always waiting to spring. If you write decimate and mean thereby the forceful reduction of a quantity by a tenth they will purr with pleasure and consider you one of them – but only until your next mistake, of course.

If you use decimate in this way, the ignorant thickos for whom you are writing will completely misunderstand what you are saying. For them, to decimate something now means to damage it seriously, perhaps even destroy it. So if I say I have decimated the full pint of beer in front of me, meaning for those in the know that I have swallowed precisely two fluid ounces, the riff-raff who do not know such things think that I have necked all of it and probably thrown the glass against the wall for good measure.

Fortunately this is a problem which is easily fixed. I cannot ever remember needing the precision of 'reduced by one tenth', whether in Roman military jargon or for drinking habits. Since someone is going to misunderstand you the solution is to avoid decimate at all costs.

To beg the question

But what to do about begging the question?

For many years the phrase was a standard element in the toolbox of debaters or analytical types. It meant to use a term that was essential to an argument without defining it, to slide over or past it, usually in the hope that no one would notice. If your adversary did notice they would point out to you that the term begged the question. As such the phrase was a commonplace in the reports of parliamentary debates and until recently every educated speaker in Britain over a certain age would understand it correctly, if only in that particular, slightly abstruse context.

Here are a few examples of beg the question taken more or less at random from Hansard. Note that all of these are single statements: the MP stood up, uttered the sentence and then sat down.

  • 1907: That is begging the question. [Promotions from the Ranks. Mr Duncan Pirie Commons — June 3, 1907]
  • 1923: That is begging the question. [ARRESTS IN GREAT BRITAIN. HC Deb 12 March 1923 vol 161 cc1043-8]
  • 1935: Surely that is begging the question. [ANIMAL EXHIBITIONS. HC Deb 17 July 1935 vol 304 c1048]
  • 1936: That is begging the issue. [SHORTER HOURS OF LABOUR. Mr Gordon Macdonald Commons — March 18, 1936]. A slightly puzzling variant.
  • 1946: That begs the question. [HOME AND OVERSEAS TRADE Mr Samuel Silverman Commons — November 5, 1946]
  • 1959: That is begging the question. [National Insurance and Family Allowances Dr Dickson Mabon Commons — February 10, 1959]
  • 1962: That begs the question. [Schedule.—(ACTS CONTINUED.) Mr Samuel Silverman Commons — November 28, 1962]
  • 1968: That is begging the question. [INDUSTRIAL EXPANSION BILL HC Deb 01 February 1968 vol 757 cc1571-695]

All was well until some ill-educated speakers stumbled across the phrase and, ignorant of the original meaning, substituted their own, quite different one. For these writers beg the question became 'to make a statement which provokes or demands an obvious question or leads inexorably to some corollary question', in other words to beg for the question.

New methane scare off Washington coast begs the question: did anybody look for these before?
Climategate begs the question: 'is peer review in need of change'?

I find the new usage vapid. There is no need for this expression; it contributes nothing to meaning. The two (real) example sentences lose nothing when it is simply left out:

New methane scare off Washington coast: did anybody look for these before?
Climategate: is peer review in need of change?

Even the sage members of the House of Commons in Britain took up the new meaning. Let us look once again at Hansard and take a couple of examples, both plucked randomly from the year 2000:

  • If that can be done in America, Germany and in Holland, it begs the obvious question, "Why not here too?" [Renewable Energy Mr Gareth Thomas Commons — January 10, 2000]
  • However, that almost begs the question whether people will try to change their income so as to pay less income tax and national insurance. [Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill Mr Ian Bruce Commons — January 11, 2000]

It is easy to see that there is an easy way to differentiate between the two usages. The original beg the question closes a sentence, or at least the idea is not continued. The new usage always requires an extension describing what the question is that has been 'begged', that is, 'provoked'.

Unfortunately – but sadly not unexpectedly – the spineless and intellectually-challenged wuzzies at the online Oxford dictionary have already caved in to this new piece of waffle:

The original meaning of the phrase beg the question belongs to the field of logic and is a translation of Latin 'petitio principii', literally meaning ‘laying claim to a principle’, i.e. assuming something that ought to be proved first, as in the following sentence: 'by devoting such a large part of the budget for the fight against drug addiction to education, we are begging the question of its significance in the battle against drugs'. To some traditionalists this is still the only correct meaning. However, over the last 100 years or so another, more general use has arisen: invite an obvious question, as in 'some definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behaviour'. This is by far the commonest use today and is the usual one in modern standard English.

I shall not rise to their snide and provocative use of the word 'traditionalists' for people who reject the misuse of existing terms. Nor to the fact that my very brief review of Hansard does not support the assertion 'over the last 100 years' – more like over the last 20 years. My handy Shorter OED (1980) records the first occurrence of the original usage as 1581 and has no entry for the second usage, even in the Addenda. Oxford should get their story straight on this point. My Webster's Collegiate Dictionary from 1987 also has just a single entry for beg the question, once more in the original meaning.

Let's look more closely at the example Oxford gives to illustrate the original meaning of beg the question:

[B]y devoting such a large part of the budget for the fight against drug addiction to education, we are begging the question of its significance in the battle against drugs.

This sentence is so convoluted that it is counterproductive as an example of usage. Being generous for a moment, I understand that Oxford are trying to squeeze the term that is being begged into the sentence containing the accusation of begging, but the result is just an obscure jumble. Let's look at it carefully – you may need to read the following paragraph a few times!

'Its' as in 'its significance' appears to mean 'education'. However, 'devoting such a large part of the budget for the fight against drug addiction to education' is not begging the question. The assumption without further evidence that education is of major importance in the fight against drugs may indeed be begging the question, but 'devoting such a large part of the budget' etc. is not begging the question at all, unless, of course, Oxford's example for the original use of beg the question is in fact an example of the new usage. Under analysis this seems to be the case.

Nor am I comfortable with a sentence in which 'we' beg the question: surely it is a logical impossiblity for the speaker to accuse him or herself of being party to begging the question? In its original sense, to beg the question can only be applied to a term, a logical proposition or argument – it cannot be applied to a person or an action: 'we' cannot beg the question, nor can any other personal pronoun or, in this case, a gerundial clause. In asserting this Oxford is making a category error. I shall pass over the issue of inventing a new phrasal verb to beg the question of: the reader's patience has been tested enough.

In fact, I find the example they supply for the new usage of beg the question could almost equally be understood as an example of the original usage (arguing that 'definitions' are terms that are inadequately defined):

[S]ome definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behaviour.

Once more Oxford proudly displays the brand new phrasal verb it invented in its example for the original usage: to beg the question of.

This is what happens when you try to be 'empirical' lexicographers, when you rely on a real-world corpus of computer-collected garbage and leave all your analytical, prescriptive capacities behind.

Avoiding value judgements just means that everything has the same value: if some idiot somewhere comes up with a foolish misuse of an existing term, once it has been used by a few other idiots then that immediately becomes an equally valid alternative to the original meaning. It is only then a matter of time until our empirical lexicographers are recommending the new usage as canonical, mainly, it seems, because the usage is newer.

If the putative brains behind the English language can get themselves into such a muddle with beg the question the only hope for practical writers – 'traditionalists' in Oxford-speak – is to avoid the expression completely.

Update 26.02.2016

Ten minutes after posting this piece I stumble across the following fine example (26 February 2016) of the 'new' meaning of to beg the question, brought to us by Freddy Gray, the deputy editor of The Spectator and formerly literary editor of The American Conservative.

It was Rubio’s best performance in a debate so far. He still spoke in that slightly annoying high-pitched voice, but he can’t change that. His barbs were well-aimed and effective.

Which begs the question, why has Rubio waited this long to attack Trump so directly? In countless earlier debates, he has shied away from a direct confrontation with Trump. Was he frightened that Trump would savage him like he savaged Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham and the others?

It looks as though we may be dealing with another example of a particular speciality of this blog, the lost cause.