On Honesty in Argument.

Ryan Ruby has a 3 Quarks Daily piece called The Prescriptivist’s Progress that begins as follows:

This month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the “language wars” and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word “Kafkaesque,” which had been used by the book’s publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque’ is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning.” A few weeks before, Slate‘s Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word “allegory.” “An entire literary tradition is being forgotten,” she warned, “because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want.”

When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.

Ruby goes on to set “Kafkaesque” aside (because it’s “already received ample coverage”) and chase after “allegory”; I’ll let those who care about such things follow him there and, if they like, quibble over metaphor and rhetorical modes. My concern is elsewhere, with the idiotic and near-libelous statement that “Merriam-Webster” is “flying the flag of prescriptivism” and protesting semantic drift. This is idiotic on several counts. In the first place, “Merriam-Webster” is not doing anything at all. One person, presumably an employee of M-W, who writes the Trend Watch column wrote:

Lookups for Kafkaesque spiked dramatically on May 17th after the Man Booker prize for 2016 was awarded to Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian. This work, translated from Korean into English by Debbie Smith, has been described by its British publishers (and by a number of reviewers) as Kafka-esque.

The word derives from the famed Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose prose became so synonymous with the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century that writers began using his name as an adjective a mere 16 years after his death. […]

The word joined a number of other literary eponyms, including Dickensian and Byronic. However, Kafkaesque has seen quite a bit more use than most such words, leading to occasional charges that the word has been watered down and given a lack of specificity due to its overuse.

In the nearly 70 years since his death, we’ve promoted Franz Kafka from a merely great writer to an all-purpose adjective, and that word – Kafkaesque – now gets tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich.
The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), 31 January 1992

That is everything the anonymous M-W employee wrote, plus the final quotation illustrating the “occasional charges that the word has been watered down.” Do you see anything there that smacks of prescriptivism? In the quotation, sure, but the Trend Watch writer is simply reporting on that prescriptivism — saying that some people complain that “the word has been watered down.” To call the Trend Watch piece prescriptivist is like saying a newspaper story reporting on a KKK rally is ipso facto racist; it is not only wrong but insulting, and shows the person who says such a thing to be at best light-minded and at worst someone with no regard for the truth. Furthermore, the quoted passage “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque’ is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning” is not Merriam-Webster noting anything, “sourly” or otherwise (seriously, does that sound sour to you?), it is an italicized caption for a picture of Kafka and is the caption-writer’s summary of one of the things the Trend Watch piece is saying (and the main point it’s making, to emphasize what should be obvious, is that a lot of people are looking up the word — that’s why it’s called “Trend Watch”).

This particular case, of course, gets under my skin because Merriam-Webster, one of the great lexicographical firms, is anti-prescriptivist by its very nature, and in fact suffered from the attacks of foolish prescriptivists when its great Third New International Dictionary came out in 1961. Shame on you, Ryan Ruby. Learn to read more carefully, think more clearly, and write more accurately.

Comments

  1. Alon Lischinsky says:

    that word – Kafkaesque – now gets tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich

    The grumpy Globe and Mail columnist must then not be a believer in Gallic precision, given the relish with which the French (and the Italian and Spanish) use the term.

    Kafkaesque has seen quite a bit more use than most [literary eponyms]

    I call bollocks.

  2. Well, you’re using a pretty restrictive set of comparisons. If “most” includes, say, “LeFanuesque,” “Southeyesque,” and “Wilkieesque,” I suspect the statement becomes more obviously accurate.

  3. In any case, Chaucerian doesn’t belong there, because as far as I know it has no extended meaning beyond ‘referring to or similar to Chaucer or his works’.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    the French (and the Italian and Spanish)

    Also, the German spelling kafkaesk has 88,700 ghits and 1 Wikipedia article.

  5. All those other literary eponyms are mostly used to describe literature – only “Kafkaesque,” “Byronic,” and “Orwellian” are regularly used to describe real-life institutions, situations, or people. Nobody would say “Having my paperwork approved was such an alienating experience, it was almost Brechtian.” There might be some uses of “Dickensian” to refer to e.g. streetscapes or personalities, but surely it is mostly used to describe novels and novelists.

    On that ngram chart, the most surprising thing to me is the rapid rise of “Brechtian” since 1960 – I wouldn’t have thought it had become more common than all those other ones. But “Shakespearean” (not on Alon Lischinsky’s chart) still tops them all.

  6. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @languagehat:

    you’re using a pretty restrictive set of comparisons

    Sure. But constructing a well-chosen list of authorial eponyms, checking their frequency in a comprehensive and balanced corpus, and discriminating literal from extended instances (ideally controlling for popularity of the author’s works, so we can distinguish direct from diffuse influence) would be a matter for a proper research paper, not a quick comment.

    In any case, the fact that even eponyms with a much more restricted semantic range (e.g., Chaucerian) are more common than Kafkaesque cast doubt on claims of overuse. I’d say that, even if inconclusive, the evidence doesn’t point that way.

    @DMT:

    All those other literary eponyms are mostly used to describe literature – only “Kafkaesque,” “Byronic,” and “Orwellian” are regularly used to describe real-life institutions, situations, or people.

    Not so sure. Among the top ten noun collocates of Dantesque you find things like landscape, vision or face. Names and atmospheres regularly get called Dickensian. Even Pinteresque menace seems to be a thing.

  7. Actually, now that you mention it, a bloke with a Dickensian name and a Dantesque face did come knocking on my door yesterday. He never really explained what he wanted but just stood there with a sort of Pinteresque menace.

  8. the quidnunc kid says:

    As we all know, no writer is “Kafkaesque” ab initio, but rather has to work her or his way up from the lower realms of Kafkidity to the higher. Even Kafka himself started out as being merely a bit “Kafka-y,” before progressing through periods of being “Kafkaish”, and then “Kafkal”, until he became well and truly “Kafkacious”. But, he then wondered, would he, could he, ever scale the lofty heights of perfect “Kafkafulness” – ? Luckily he won a scholarship to study himself at University and ended up with a Master’s Degree in Kafkology, which enabled him to develop the truly Kafkaesque style we all enjoy today. I mean, sometimes his writing slips back into being a little Kafkaotic, but generally speaking he’s one of the Kafkaesque-est writers in the Wyoming Rodeo Association today.

  9. Quiddy! Nice to see you here, you Kafkonic kurmudgeon, you!

  10. the quidnunc kid says:

    Hee hee! Always a pleasure to read some first-rate languagehattery on this, the most languagehatorific blog there is! And long may it (and you) continue!

  11. “Dickensian” is in all onelook’s British dictionaries and none of the American ones. I am surprised by the latter statistic.

  12. The outcry (by which I mean “half a dozen loud curmudgeons”) seems to me to come from a simple confusion between technical and general language. Words like “allegory” have both precise and diffuse meanings – and that causes no trouble to anyone. To complain that people misuse “allegory” is like complaining that they describe the TV volume as too “high” (=loud, in acoustics terminology), or use “weight” to talk about kilograms (in physics, “mass”).

  13. Ahem. Loudness is not an acoustic but an auditory term: like joy, it is in the ear that hears, not in the mouth (or whatever) that speaks. Its acoustic rough counterpart is sound pressure level.

  14. “When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning.”

    That’s not really true, is it?

  15. It is true, in the sense that that is what prescriptivists think. If what you want is to write text in a restricted and controlled code that never changes, you do indeed want such rules; likewise if you are a beginner in the language you are using. If you want to write in a living language that you already command, it’s another story.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    DW: “When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning.”

    In morphology and syntax there are fairly precise rules, but for determining the meaning of a word (assuming it has only one meaning) there are no such rules. A comprehensive dictionary lists one or more generally accepted definitions, with some indication of context and register (eg formal or not) but dictionaries have to go through new editions at regular intervals, adding both new words and new definitions for words which have changed their meaning (or more commonly added another meaning which coexists with an older one, although the “register” may be different – for instance the new meaning may be found only in the context of slang or technical jargon). Thus “fixing” the meaning of a word is not possible, since additional meanings cannot be predicted in advance (and neither is the obsolescence of some meanings, or of words).

  17. The idea that weight is a force, not a mass, is one of those things that is drilled into high school and college physics students, simply because at one time, many physicists that it was a useful distinction to draw. Nowadays, however, in actual discussions among physicists, “weight” (to the extent that it is talked about) just means the same thing as “mass.”

  18. As long as you remain earthbound, that’s fine. Pilots, though, talk about the four forces on an airplane: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. And in Larry Niven’s Smoke Ring stories, which feature humans liviing in microgravity in a gas torus, there’s an episode where the Grad, an apprentice shaman, refers to a strong tide, only to be corrected: “This is not tide, it is thrust!”

  19. marie-lucie says:

    brett: in actual discussions among physicists, “weight” (to the extent that it is talked about) just means the same thing as “mass.”

    Good to know that even physicists use the word like ordinary people.

    I recall mentioning here that I had read in an elementary or intermediate reader (Canadian edition) a story in which a tall, strongly built woman was described as “she had a mass of 96 kilograms”, most likely a revised, pedantically correct version of an original “she weighed 200 pounds” (no doubt give or take a few pounds).

  20. Yeah, false precision is a bugbear of mine. I hate it when, for example in a journalistic context, a rough estimate in imperial will be accompanied by a precise conversion in metric (or vice versa).

  21. I’m editing a book in which the author says things like “around 9:00 a.m.”; I groan and delete the :00.

  22. I had a colleague who, whenever he heard somebody quote a number with a spurious degree of precision, would mutter, “Significant figures, asshole!”

  23. On the other hand, the so-called normal body temperature of 98.6° F is just a spuriously hard conversion of 37° C. The 96 kg is very weird, though: 200 lb is 91.718 … kg, so I’d expect 92 rather than 96 kg as a hard conversion rounded to an integer. 96 kg is 211.643 … lb, but it’s even less likely that the original said “212 lb”. So I think what we have here is a stupid decision compounded by bad arithmetic.

  24. Mass and weight are just words. The day I go to buy new bathroom scales and they are all marked in Newtons, that’s when I get grumpy. (I do weigh more than 1kN in Earth surface gravity, but there’s no reason to rub it in).

    EDIT: 96kg = 15 stone?

  25. As far as I know, stone are not used in Canada, but to be sure the book might have come from the UK in the first place. Still, then I’d expect 95, which is “rounder” as well as more accurate than 96. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

    I don’t have a scale in my bathroom; when I am “weighed” at the doctor, it’s using a balance scale, which truly measures mass.

  26. truly measures mass: Well, the result is independent of local gravity, so assuming that the balance beam is calibrated correctly and that there are no other torques acting on it (such as fingers), you can establish that two masses have a certain ratio. It’s still much less immediate than stop watches, tape measures and measuring cups — we don’t measure mass, we measure its effects. (In this case, the torques effected on the beam by the force of Earth’s gravity on JC and the counterweights).

    The same goes for current and voltage and lots of other physical properties, of course — there’s a lot of force and torque balancing going on in traditional measuring instruments, usually with springs doing the balancing.

  27. Tape measures and cups I grant you, but a stopwatch too measures not time but its effects.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Lars, JC: 96kg = 15 stone?

    The story I referred to was in a Canadian school book and related a true event a hundred or so years ago, a shipwreck on the rocky coast of either Nova Scotia or Newfoundland, where a heavily built, strong young woman was able to save the passengers and crew by maintaining the boat in place with a rope so the people could be rescued safely.

    I assumed that the original story gave her weight (relevant in this case) in pounds (I did not check the conversion to kilos), but it is quite possible that it was expressed in “stones”, if the event occurred in Newfoundland which was then an independent British colony (it joined Canada in 1949). “Stones” would not have been understood by the children reading the story, but replacing “weight in stones” by “mass in kilograms” rather than “weight in pounds” (still the general wording) was going too far.

  29. m-l: Note that stone is always spoken of in the singular after a numeral, like units of measure in many languages but mostly not English. There are a few similar retentions: one can say either six foot one or six feet one when speaking of a person’s height. The latter is more common in Google Ngrams, though the former has been steadily on the rise throughout the 20C, which surprises me. American vs. British and fiction vs. non-fiction makes little difference, and I also tried five foot two, which is part of a well-known song: again, it made little difference.

  30. a stopwatch too measures not time but its effects: That depends on your mental model of spacetime, I suppose. Time (unlike mass) is a dimension, not a process, and the ticking of the clock is a series of events equidistant on a timelike path which we can compare to timelike distances on other paths, just like the markings on a ruler are equidistant on a spacelike path.

    The “arrow of time” aka the increase of entropy / dissipation of energy is arguably what makes the clock tick, but the ticks have independent existence. You can’t make a ruler without dissipating energy either.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Is it possible that the original said that she weighed two hundredweight, which would be too much for British hundredweight (2 x 112 = 224 pounds), but about right in US/Canadian hundredweight (2 x 100 = 200 pounds)?

  32. marie-lucie says:

    JC: I should have known about “fifteen stone”.

    I don’t think many people say “five feet four”, in my experience the norm is “five foot four”.

    I just remembered the phrase “Full fathom five” – not “fathoms”.

    Athel: I have seen the word “hundredweight” but not often enough to remember the use in context. Was it ever used about the weight of human beings? In any case my point was the replacement of “weight” by “mass”, which along with the change of units and the exact (not rounded) number seemed much too precise for the context and genre of the story. Who cares what the woman’s exact weight was! She was big and strong, and the approximate figure gave an idea of her size, without going into details.

  33. I think it’s decidedly strange to weigh people in hundredweight. It’s too coarse, though weighing in pounds or kilos may be too fine-grained.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I guess “stone” would be just right.

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    Having just finished the book, I see why Merriam-Webster was cross. To call it “Kafkaesque” is intellectual bone-idleness. I don’t believe the blurbist even had an actual meaning in mind when he used the word.

    If pressed to play that foolish game, I’d call “The Vegetarian” Lispectoric.

  36. Google has Lispectorian[o] pretty far ahead right now.

  37. Time to get a start on Lispectoresque!

  38. David Marjanović says:

    On the other hand, the so-called normal body temperature of 98.6° F is just a spuriously hard conversion of 37° C.

    …which in turn is a rounding of 36.6 °C.

  39. Aye, when I am mentally translating from stone to kg (as I do all the time at the day job) the figure at the front of my mind is 10 stone = 64 kg, and I would write 96 kg if someone said fifteen stone without a second thought. And they’re probably not being exactly accurate anyway, not least because since metrication in .ie no-one young can remember the divisions of the imperial units despite that they are what everyone uses for casual anthropometry.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    If I had been editing the text for Canadian children, I think I would have changed “she weighed 15 stone” (taking this as the probable original) to “she weighed about 200 pounds”, something they could relate to because that’s what their parents and other adults would use, never to “she had a mass of 96 kilograms” which would only be suitable for a science class.

  41. After reading the comments above on its use in French and Spanish and German, I wondered if it’s found in Arabic. Turns out the answer is yes, as in the lead:

    العدالة المصرية تقدم صورة كافكاوية للحياة في مصر بعد أعوام ثلاثة مرت على الثورة
    Al-ʕadālatu l-Miṣriyyatu tuqaddimu ṣūratan Kāfkāwiyyatan li-l-ḥayāti fī Miṣra baʕda ‘aʕwāmin ṯalāṯatin marrat ʕalā ṯ-ṯawrah
    Egyptian justice presents a Kafkaesque picture of life in Egypt three years after the revolution
    http://zahma.cairolive.com/?p=10733

    or the book review title:

    باتريك زوسكيند في روايته “الحمامة” . جو كافكاوي ملؤه الحنين والعزلة
    Bātrīk Zūskīnd fī riwāyati “l-Ḥamāmah”. Jawwun Kāfkāwiyyun mala’ahu l-ḥanīnu wa-l-ʕuzlah.
    Patrick Süskind in the novel “The Pigeon”: A Kafkaesque mood filled with nostalgia and isolation

    http://daharchives.alhayat.com/issue_archive/Hayat%20INT/1999/8/20/%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%83-%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%AF-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%AA%D9%87-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%AC%D9%88-%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%8A-%D9%85%D9%84%D9%88%D9%94%D9%87-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B2%D9%84%D8%A9.html

    It seems that some staples of media language are truly international. Byronic, on the other hand…

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