Language: September 2006 Archives

The BBC has put up some excerpts from Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion. I could say a lot about his screed [Update: see Siris for some of that], but one thing struck me as worth a quick post. In the second excerpt, Dawkins takes on the very idea of calling terrorists evil, because I guess he doesn't think it's possible to try to understand why someone does something while calling what they do evil. I guess he can join some in the religious right on that one. Explaining someone's actions and evaluating them as good or evil are two entirely different tasks. Anyway, in that context Dawkins decides he should complain about the phrase "war on terror". He thinks those using this phrase are thinking "as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own".

One academic I know fairly well has made fun of the president for speaking of evil as if it's a great force that we are at war with, and I think Dawkins has made the same mistake. Dawkins complains of people who take the Bible literally in the first excerpt of this book. In the second excerpt, he makes fun of people in a way that shows that he's taking something literally that was never intended to be a literal statement. No one thinks that Western nations have engaged in a war with some abstract force with a mind of its own. That's not what anyone thinks the war on terror is. It's an example of a very common literary form called metonymy.

But here's what's interesting about Dawkins' statement. I've never seen him make fun of people who engage in a crusade against breast cancer, as if breast cancer is some abstract spiritual force that takes over people's bodies and makes strange things grow where they shouldn't be. I don't see snide remarks against those who engage in the war on poverty, as if poverty is a spirit with a will. I haven't even found any comments on the war on drugs, although I'd be less surprised to see those. Dawkins isn't really serious about this linguistic claim, or he'd be applying it more universally. I think he's simply saying anything he can when it comes to his pet issues, because he knows it can be rhetorically effective among the civilized crowd (i.e. the ones who don't take the Bible very seriously and don't admit that anything is evil once you can explain why people do it). The problem is that he has to sound linguistically insensitive to score such points. I don't consider that a good trade.

Update: Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins' book is here. I can't do justice to it by summarizing, but he gives the book a real thrashing.
Update 2: Here's another review [hat tip: Trent Dougherty]

'Human' as a Noun

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Suzanne McCarthy posts about 'human' as a noun. I'm not sure if I've ever encountered anyone saying that 'human' is not a noun. I consider it to be a strange enough view, given that the word 'human' clearly does gets used as a noun in all sorts of contexts. That's just a fact about the English language, and any dictionary that fails to acknowledge that is simply displaying ignorance. But then people who think some arbitrarily selected body of people can arbitrate prescriptions for what counts as English will come up with all sorts of features of common English that they will declare to be wrong.

While I do think it's a mistake to think 'human' is not a noun in English, I also think there are times when people use it as a noun that sound very unnatural to me. Sometimes it sounds much more natural to say 'person' or 'human being' or to change the syntax so the noun is 'anyone' or 'someone'. This is not because 'human' cannot be a noun but because using it as a noun suggests a contrast with other sorts of creatures. We can talk about what's true of a human as opposed to an ape. It seems strange to say that you went to answer your doorbell, and you discovered a human there. When you say that, it sounds as if you were expecting the neighbor's dog, an ogre, or aliens from another galaxy. Since Suzanne's post was about Bible translations rather than just good English grammar or style, I have to suggest that contemporary translations that use 'human' as a noun need to be careful to do so when it's natural to do so. Since that isn't always the case, other methods might be preferable so as not to give the wrong sense.

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