Two arguments about intended meaning

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Over at Language Log last week, linguist Geoffrey Pullum posted an entry titled "Yale sluts and Princeton philosophers," about a threatened lawsuit over a Yale fraternity's writing a sign saying "WE LOVE YALE SLUTS."

Pullum's entry is primarily a fairly standard "damn those PC people who are trying to stop our precious freedom of speech!" post, thinly disguised as being of linguistic relevance through a couple of arguments about the use of language. And, y'know, I agree with him that our society has too many lawsuits. And he later retracted some of the political stuff that I found most annoying about his post, after he found out more about the situation; also, he linked to Jane Achson's subsequent guest entry that makes some compelling points about harassment. It's worth noting that there have always been legal limits on Americans' freedom of speech.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about; this is my language blog, not my political blog. So what I want to say here is that in that particular entry, Pullum (whom I normally have a fair bit of respect for) was so focused on making his political point that he fumbled a couple of language-related arguments. And the reason I want to talk about those arguments is that they're arguments that I see pretty often; so my point here is not primarily that Pullum shouldn't have made these arguments, but rather that nobody should be making them.

This got very long, so I'm continuing after the jump.

In particular, in addition to the perlocutionary-language issue that David M brought up, Pullum made two quite common language arguments that I don't believe hold water:

The invariant-meaning argument

According to this argument, a word's meaning depends solely on its historical meaning; and/or a word's meaning in a given context must be the same as its meanings in other contexts. For example, Pullum suggests that because the word "slut" has been used to refer to things as mild as "bad housekeeping"; and because it has been used affectionately by some people; and because it has been used metaphorically by some people (as in Volokh calling himself and others "media sluts"); therefore, the frat boys who used it in this incident must have intended it affectionately and without any offensive intent. They could not possibly have meant it to be derogatory, because the word has in the past been used non-derogatorily.

This argument is just as ridiculous to me as the argument that because "decimate" once meant killing every tenth man, it cannot now refer to a large amount of death or destruction. Words quite often change meaning over time, and quite often have different connotations in different contexts. Surely Pullum doesn't really think that when someone yells out "you fucking slut!" it's meant as a sign of affection?

I myself use the term affectionately, metaphorically, or for fun in some contexts, and I applaud those who try in various ways to reclaim the word, and I was tickled when I first saw the T-shirt that says "Sometimes you feel like a slut, sometime you don't"; nonetheless, I don't make the mistake of thinking that it's always, or even usually, used in a positive or friendly way. On the contrary, it's usually an insult.

The descriptors-can't-be-universal argument

According to this argument, when someone refers to a class of people (or a category of things) but attaches a descriptor, the descriptor must always refer only to the members of the given class whom the description fits, and can never refer to all members of the class.

For example, if I refer to "those morons at the TSA," then I'm obviously only talking about those TSA employees who happen to be morons, not saying that all TSA employees are morons. Right? And if I say "I hate lying Cretans," I must mean that I dislike the particular subclass of Cretans who happen to be liars--I couldn't possibly be implying that all Cretans are liars, right?

Well, wrong. You may intend the descriptor to apply only to the subclass, but that's not the only reasonable interpretation. In fact, it's quite common to apply a descriptor to a class of people and intend the descriptor to refer to all members of that class.

Pullum did retract this idea in an update to the original entry; he noted that someone else had pointed out that the phrase "Princeton bastards" does indeed suggest that all Princetonians are bastards. But I'm bringing this issue up in this entry anyway because it's an argument I see people make quite often, and it really annoys me.

I regularly see people saying things like "Look, Joe, when I said 'you assholes' in my previous post, obviously I wasn't referring to you; I was only referring to those of my readers who are assholes." It's a technique for making yourself look reasonable while still managing to insult entire groups of people.

My issue with this argument is not an issue with the idea that a descriptor can be non-universal; a great many descriptors are used to refer to specific members of a class. My issue is with the notion that it's obvious that a given descriptor is intended non-universally. In most situations (in English), this kind of phrase is ambiguous, and more context is often needed to make clear which meaning was intended.

For example, if I say "I threw out the moldy vegetables," it's not immediately obvious (to my ear, anyway) whether I mean "All of the vegetables were moldy, so I threw them all out" or whether I mean "Some of the vegetables were moldy, so I threw out the ones that were."

In my experience, most derogatory descriptors (without further context) are intended to refer to the entire class, not only to select members of the class. I have occasionally seen people use a derogatory descriptor to refer to a subclass, but it's definitely not the most common usage, so suggesting that it's the obvious intended meaning is either disingenuous or just wrong.

A lot depends on the details of the phrasing and context and choice of words, of course. "We love promiscuous Yale frat boys" would suggest to me that they were referring to a subclass--i.e., that there are also non-promiscuous Yale frat boys. "We love slutty Yale frat boys" is more ambiguous to my ear; as with the moldy vegetables, I can see the meaning going either way.

But again, my point is that (a) this kind of phrasing is quite often very ambiguous in English, and (b) it's therefore usually a bad argument to claim that one meaning or the other is obvious.