Language: August 2004 Archives

The abortion rights era wasn't the first time people denied personhood to human beings by fiat without argument. It's happened before with slaves in the United States and apparently also with women in Canada, for very different reasons.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied full personhood to slaves (not to black people as a whole, as some have claimed, and not to black people exclusively but to any slave regardless of race, and there were white slaves) only for the sake of counting how many representatives a district would have. It's not as if the denial of rights came from this. That was already assumed. It would be silly to claim that slaves have 3/5 of a person with 3/5 of the rights of a person. This was merely a compromise between the northern states that didn't want non-voting slaves to count for representation when only the much smaller voting population would wield all the power those slaves would give them and the southern states that wanted more influence without giving the people who gave them that influence any vote.

According to Bill Poser at Language Log, a Canadian woman became some sort of magistrate, and some lawyers opposed it on the grounds that she wasn't a person and couldn't carry out her duties as a magistrate. This was in 1916. It sounds unbelievable, but once you see the legal argument for it you can tell it was just a silly lawyer's argument with no basis. Once that's clear, though, it has an interesting consequence for the debate over gender-neutral language to describe groups whose gender is mixed or indeterminate.

Disinterested Media?

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Michelle Malkin is on C-SPAN's Washington Journal right now, and she just contradicted herself unintentionally. I'm not sure why, but in the last few weeks I've seen a much higher concentration of misuses of the term 'disinterested' to mean uninterested, whereas it really means not biased. Her whole point was to say that the major media outlets went way out of their way to focus on every little detail of Bush's National Guard service only to discover that there was no story there, while they've been dragged kicking and screaming even to mention all the stuff now with Kerry's Vietnam service, an issue he himself has placed so prominently in his campaign as to invite it. That's pure bias. Then why does she go and say that the major media outlets are disinterested, which means they're not biased? She's intelligent enough that I'd expect her to know the difference between being disinterested and uninterested. This isn't exactly a picky point of language. Her actual statement contradicted her main point. Aside from bad arguments for conclusions I agree with and unfair presentations of views I have sympathy with, there isn't much that a pundit can do to annoy me besides mangling the English language so much that the very argument they're making gets undermined. This particular mistake has been so common recently that it seems as if there's a major movement to annoy me.

Amen

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Tim Challies has a good post about the uses and abuses of 'amen'. He doesn't discuss my favorite abuse, but my comment over there does, so I won't repeat it here.

Double Positive

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Sidney Morgenbesser, philosophy professor at Columbia University, died yesterday. NPR had a little tidbit on him this afternoon, demonstrating that a famous urban legend really happened. One of his colleagues was on the air recounting it.

J.L. Austin was giving a talk formal semantics and pragmatics or something like that, and he said something about double negatives canceling out and making a positive but that double positives never turn to a negative. Morgenbesser, under his breath and not expecting to be heard, said "Yeah, yeah..." Everyone in the room did hear and of course broke out in laughter.

I heard this story without any names and without it being said to be even related to philosophy. I think it was "Yeah, right!" instead. I had assumed it was just another urban legend like most stories about professors, but it turns out to be a true urban legend.

I keep hearing these quick news blurbs on the Arminian churches that have been attacked in Iraq, and I've been wondering why it is that they've been targeting the churches that emphasize human freedom in salvation as over against God's sovereignty. Why wouldn't they target Calvinist churches also? I just don't get it. Is there something about the emphasis on human freedom that the terrorists think is more threatening? Well, isn't Calvinism also known for its connection to the middle class in Europe and the drive to prosper economically? Sure, it has nothing to do with what Calvinism is really about, but I wouldn't expect Islamicist terrorists to know anything about what really drives Christians, so I don't buy this explanation. What was that? They weren't targeting Arminian churches? They were targeting Armenian churches? Well, someone better tell all the news anchors at CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and everywhere else that's been misreporting it! I wonder if they're using Christian bloggers as their source of information. After all, a number of Christian bloggers in the circles I've been reading tend to contrast two different theological positions -- Calvinism and Armenianism. Last I knew the Armenian Orthodox were closer to Russian and Greek Orthodox than to anything else (though there are still big differences). A good Google search can pull up some good examples of this phenomenon, but I'm going to be nice and not point anyone out.

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