4 April 2005, 11:36 AM
Mark Liberman was certain to catch my eye with a piece on the Language Log called Hartman’s Law Confirmed Again. However, other than the reference to Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation (which, bye the bye, comes up first on a Google search for “Hartman’s Law” this morning, so sucks to any so-called iterated logarithm for explosive Gaussian autoregressive processes!), the content was dealing with joke Latin. So, we’ll pass lightly over that.
The location of the joke Latin in question, however, is the April Fool’s site for the March to End “Beg the Question” Abuse by Paolo Ordoveza, which was then noted by the livejournalist comma in a note called literal misreading. Comma defends the use of the phrase beg the question to mean something like raises the question or provokes the question; I find that use grating, and prefer to reserve the use for the rhetorical trick (or error) of petitio principii, for which begging the question is a bad translation, but the one that has come into (moderately) common use. OK, not very common.
That, actually, is comma’s argument; the handful of people who use the phrase in its relation to a logical fallacy shouldn’t impose their jargon on the rest of the world, who, after all, are “are combining the meanings of the words in accordance with the normal compositional rules of English semantics.” With, as he admits, “a little coercion”. In my opinion, a lot of coercion.
We don’t say that bland food begs the salt. We don’t say that a panhandler begs the money. In fact, if you were to take a moment from Googling “Hartman’s Law” you might find that “begs the ” has about 673 kghits, where “begs the question” has 630 kghits. This would lead a person to believe that 94% of usages of “begs the ” are as part of the idiom. Of course, believing that would be silly; kghits are a lousy and inaccurate measuring device. F’r’instance, “begs the question” +“begs the question” gets about 1,690 kghits, thus showing that over 250% of sites which contain the phrase begs the question also contain the phrase begs the question. Or, in an other and far more accurate sense, shows that there’s no real point in attempting to judge relative frequencies of juxtapositions of words via ghits.
Anyway, I do think that it’s preposterous to suggest that the idiom that means provokes the question arose independently (not that comma does suggest that, but the preposterousness of the claim he does not make is important to the claim he does make). No, what clearly happened is that people were aware, vaguely, that there was a phrase begging the question and that it was an idiom for something, and they took a guess what it was. The guess was wrong. It’s not surprising; the idiom is derived from a bad translation in the first place. But it was wrong. It’s as if, knowing that educated persons with a pretension to culture occasionally use whom where once might expect who, a person were to guess that whom indicated relative importance, or the gender or age of the person referenced, or the case of the pronoun’s declension, instead of, as is correct, the added m merely being a signal that the speaker is a pretentious git.
But why get worked up over this, or over oxymoron? Well, for YHB, there’s the crankiness that comes from a pedant’s pet phrase being clumsily coopted by the bellowing yahoos circumjacent, but there’s also the matter of careful speech versus sloppy speech. We whom are interested in rhetoric are touchy on the matter of sloppy speech anyway; we may not be prescriptivists all, but we like our language change to be the result of something more than just slop. And begs the question seems to me unnecessary and unfelicitous in its casual use. I think Mr. Ordoveza puts it best:
Already, philosophical arguments are degrading, as more knowledgeable folk accuse their conversational partners of "begging the question," only to meet the reply, "What's the question I'm begging?" If we don't act now, who knows what depths we could sink to? Language as we know it will collapse! Words and phrases will be open to any gopher bookcase throwing limelight Pepsi yellow harving gadger sastunable turpadoop!
iterated logarithm for explosive Gaussian autoregressive processes,