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It's the truth, it's factual

I am awfully fond of the boys over at the Language Log, despite my occasional complaints about them. One of the things that I like about them is their ability to maintain a posture of astonished outrage each time a news or pop culture item reveals the total ignorance of and indifference to academic linguistics prevalent in the world at large. Their dogged persistence in being entertainingly miffed by each instance of the Eskimos have 50 words for snow trope. Their constant alarm at journalistic incompetence in matters grammatical, syntactical and, um, somethin’ else. And their magnificent intolerance for falsehoods about language.

The latest instance that brought it to mind is Geoffrey K. Pullum’s note on Invariably followed by the phrase, in which he is shocked—shocked—that Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker could write that Hillary Clinton’s name “is invariably followed these days by the phrase "who may or may not run for president in 2008."” It turns out that the Senator’s name is never, or nearly never followed by that exact phrase, nor with any phrase particularly close to it. Mr. Pullum claims to be puzzled by “the practice of needlessly making true claims about nonlinguistic matters into false claims about linguistic material.”

That started me thinking—is the claim false? Mr. Pullum admits that the sense of the statement is simply that Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy is widely and frequently discussed. For the moment, let’s take that to be true; my sense is that most people who are talking about Sen. Clinton these days touch on her potential candidacy, although many people who are talking about the presidential race are not talking about her. Still, the vaguer statement has the journalistic advantage of being false primarily in its vagueness, and is neither provable nor disprovable, and does not (I think) imply to the reader that any research has been done on the matter. But what claim does the invariably followed sentence make that is less true than the other? Surely, Ms. Franklin did not intend her readers to believe it to be true as stated. The idea is preposterous. The line was a joke, surely, and one intended to, by misdirection, bring the reader around to her point. Is the falsehood, the inaccuracy, of her statement any greater than the inaccuracy of something like ‘the autumn leaves have given up, demoralized by the rain and wind, happy to let go of the shivering branches, eager to be consumed in the heat of the bonfire.’ I mean, no, they weren’t. It's a figure of speech.

If the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, how many words are there in English for saying something that isn’t true? There are lies, of course, and falsehoods, and mistakes, and errors and inaccuracies and deceptions and delusions. There’s overstatement and understatement and misstatement. There are fictions, of course, and stories and myths and so on. There is auxesis and accismus, there’s metaphor and irony, there’s the fib and the fish story, the brag and the boast, the whopper and the white lie, hyperbole and litotes, euphemism and cacemphaton. There’s the mockumentary, the satire, the fictionalized bio-pic, the autobiographical novel, the composite figure. Each of these things is something a trifle different. Some untruths are deliberate, some are inadvertent, some are sloppy, some are pointed, some aren’t even false. I’m pretty sure there’s a word, and I could Google for it of course, for the statement that you think is false, but is true unbeknownst. If, as references to the Eskimo’s vocabulary are intended to state, a detailed and extensive vocabulary on a subject reveals a cultural obsession, then what does all this say about us? And is it true?

And how many words are there for snow in English, Gentle Reader?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


Well, there’s trick, con, befuddle, chisel, cheat...

Oh wait, you meant the noun.

:) to Fran.

V: "There are lies, of course, and falsehoods, and mistakes..." and statistics! Mustn't forget statistics.

...More seriously, I think it's interesting that this particular instance of "invariably followed by" isn't true, because there are other such phrases (epithets, I guess?) that are used nearly every time a given name comes up. My favorite example being "Panamania strongman Manuel Noriega" -- there was a time when almost every use of his name that I saw was preceded by "Panamanian strongman." It wasn't quite literally invariably (like, journalists didn't use the phrase multiple times per article), but it was close. So I wonder if there'll come a time when a more compact version of the "invariably" at hand (like, say, "likely 2008 Presidential contender Hillary Clinton") will become near-universal.

...Am in too much of a rush to fact-check anything above, so I disclaim all responsibility for what I just wrote.

The Panamanian strongman trope was short-lived, of course. One hopes (or at least Your Humble Blogger hopes) that Sen. Clinton won't be rotting in jail by this time next year.

I'm more used to seeing a term adhere to a name in baseball broadcasting, where certain (left-handed) pitchers are always crafty, certain shortstops are scrappy, and certain outfielders are gifted. Oh, and I suppose other outfielders are controversial, and some are troubled. On the other hand, I suspect that the kind of Lexis-Nexis search that you and I aren't going to bother doing would explode the notion that such terms appear with the name most of the time. It's the frequency fallacy, I suspect.

And does disclaimer count?


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