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Archive for the tag “words and meanings”

Political correctness

I have always understood the primary meaning of “political correctness” to refer to the subservience of burrowing apparatchiks who try to align their opinions with those perceived to be in power.

A primary example in South Africa today would be ANC members of parliament, and of provincial and municipal councils, who do not dare to criticise Jacob Zuma, even though they may have private misgivings about him.

I believe the term originated in Marxist or Communist party circles, where people might precede some criticism of the party line, however mild, with an ironically self-deprecating phrase such as, “It may not be politically correct to say so, but…”

From there it spread to other groups and other power structures, but with the same general meaning of unwillingness to criticise those perceived to be in power, and an unquestioning adherence to the party line, whatever the party might be.

Then the meaning seemed to become restricted to the use of language.

The Vicar of Bray

The Vicar of Bray

Undoubtedly political correctness did get expressed in language. When South Africa was ruled by the National Party, “natives” became “Bantu” and later “Blacks” (with a capital B), and the politically correct changed their usage in accordance with the approved pattern. When “Native Reserves” became “Bantu Homelands” the politically correct changed their terminology accordingly. The politically incorrect would precede “Homelands” by “so-called”, or would use air quotes when they said it.

The primary example, the paradigm and model of political correctness is the Vicar of Bray.

But now there seems to be a further narrowing down of the meaning of political correctness, especially in the USA, for example in the following article, in which it seems to be defined solely in terms of “offense sensitivity” — The Personality of Political Correctness – Scientific American Blog Network:

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension “PC-Egalitarianism” and the second dimension “PC-Authoritarianism”. Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon, but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

It’s an interesting article, but I think it is a pity that the term is narrowed down in that way. It seems to leave a gap in the language. If you reduce political correctness to offence sensitivity, what do you call real political correctness?

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Enablement — a new pondian difference?

I’ve just discovered a new (to me) and hitherto entirely unsuspected difference in meaning of a word on the east and west sides of the herring pond that geographers call the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in North America “enablement” means something completely different from what it means in South Africa, and to all accounts, the UK. I’m not sure about other parts of the English-speaking world.

Someone posted this chart of virtues on Facebook:

VirtuesI reposted it, with the comment that I was puzzled by “Enablement”, as I could not see where it fitted. I would have said “Altruism” there, perhaps, even though it sounds a bit Ayn Randish.

Evan Kirshenbaum, an American and a respected language fundi, responded, “The notion is being so uncritical that you wind up helping somebody’s self-destructive behavior.

That seemed weird.

It is almost completely opposite to the way I have usually heard the world used. To me, and I’m sure to most South Africans, “enablement” means helping someone to do something for themselves rather than always relying on others to do it for them.

The classic example is teaching a child to tie its own shoe laces.

Tying your own shoe laces is self-destructive behaviour?

The mind boggles.

I’ve mainly heard the term used in the context of community development and political activism.

It meant enabling people to do things for themselves rather than waiting for the government to do things for them.

One of the classic examples was in a handbook for community development compiled by an American friend.

Back in the day (ie about 45 years ago) a deputation from a small rural community in Zululand went see the local magistrate to complain that they had no drinking water.

Magistrate: Why don’t you have water? The government just built a new dam.

Community leaders: “Yes, but we cannot drink the water in the dam.”

M: Why can’t you drink the water?

CL: There is a dead dog in it.

M: Why don’t you just remove the dog?

CL: It is the government’s dam. The government must remove the dog.

Now there are various  sub-texts about power relations in that story that are explored in the manual of community development. I am using the story here simply to illustrate the kind of attitude of dependency that enablement is intended to overcome, and it is the dependency, rather than the enablement, that is seen as self-destructive.

So how did a word get transformed to mean almost its opposite in the space of 45 years?

Update 26 January 2016

I have done some more historical research, and established that the difference is not pondian, in the sense that it has different meanings on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, since both meanings originated in the USA.

The terms enabler and enabling (in the sense I have described) were introduced to South Africa in the mid-1960s by an American Episcopalian priest, Don Griswold, and the circumstances of the introduction were as follows.

The Anglican Bishop of Zululand, Tom Savage, wanted lay people to be more active in the church, and tried by various means to promote “the ministry of the laity”. At some point, presumably on a visit to the USA, he had been introduced to T-Groups, also referred to as Sensitivity Training, Encounter Groups or Group Dynamics. This method of experience-based education in group processes was endorsed by the US psychologist Carl Rogers.

Bishop Savage invited Don Griswold to come to South Africa, and he was the Rector of the parish of Holy Cross in Empangeni, and ran T-Group training at the diocesan conference centre at KwaNzimela. Bishop Savage encouraged all the clergy to take part in this training, and most of the groups were mixed clergy and laity, black and white, male and female, Zulu-speaking and English-speaking. As Bishop Savage had hoped, the training helped to break down barriers between clergy and laity, black and white. The latter aspect of the training was anathema to the government of the day, which appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate these breeding grounds of leftists (a headline in one Afrikaans newspaper was brooines van linkses onthul (breeding ground of leftists exposed) .

Anglican clergy from other dioceses also attended the T-Group training, and so it spread to other parts of the country, and it also spread to other denominations. By 1970 there were ecumenical CELT (Christian Education and Leadership Training) groups in most of the major centres. Some of the lay people who attended were businessmen, who introduced it as work in the form of team-building exercises and so on, so it became quite widespread. Some of those who had originally been trained in the church context set themselves up as management training consultants, and began doing it in purely secular contexts.

T-group and associated forms of experience-based education also introduced new terms (or new meanings for old terms) into the South African church (and later secular) vocabulary. I shall discuss just three of these terms here, but there were others.

  • Feedback. Before T-groups “feedback” had an largely negative meaning. It referred to an often-undesirable characteristic of electronic circuits, the most common example being the howling noise produced in public address systems when the output of loudspeakers was fed back into the microphone. In group dynamics jargon it referred to a response to something someone had said in a T-group, usually not to the content of what was said, but rather to the effect that it had on the group’s interaction. It was later extended to almost any kind of response, usually elicited by saying “Tell me what you think of this.”
  • Facilitator. Each small group in T-group training (see the Wikipedia article for more information on the training method) had a facilitator. The term facilitator was used because the role of the facilitator was not to be a leader or a teacher. The facilitators were not to initiate group interactions, but merely to give constructive feedback to the group on what was taking place, where necessary.
  • Enabler. As part of Bishop Savage’s vision for more active laity in the church, the role of the clergy was defined as being enablers. The clergy were not to be ministers, or do all the ministry of the church themselves. Their task was to enable the laity to do ministry. So enablement goes together with the related term empowerment. The difference between the two terms is that empowerment refers primarily to giving people the confidence to do things for themselves that they had been passively waiting for someone else to do for them, and enablement meant equipping them with the skills needed to do those things. And this conception of the clergy as enablers was introduced by an American, Don Griswold, so it is not a pondian difference.

This meaning of “enabler” and “enablement” was the primary one in my mind until I I saw it in the graphic of the “virtues” shown above, where it puzzled me. And it still puzzles me how a term can come to mean almost precisely its opposite in the space of 50 years or so.

I find it difficult to believe that the negative meaning was widespread when the positive one was introduced, otherwise a different term would surely have been used, to avoid confusion. So there is still a question of how the terms “enabler”, “enabling” and “enablement” came to mean their opposites in popular connotation in the space of 50 years.

Yes, you can probably distinguish them by context, but in the diagram where I first encountered the negative meaning, there are no contextual clues. It just assumes that the negative meaning is primary and that everyone knows it.

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised, because something similar happened to facilitator.

When I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, someone came to speak to the department about a new task group that had been set up in the university. The person told us, with a perfectly straight face, that the task group was set up to “facilitate conflict”, and wondered why the editors collapsed into helpless giggles.

So what do you think “enablement” means?

 

Hijacking words: Urban Dictionary: Communitarianism

Having at one time been an editor of academic texts I am interested in words and meaning, and especially in the way words are sometimes used to obscure and confuse meaning rather than to communicate meaning. Words can sometimes be “hijacked” or “skunked”. They are hijacked when their meaning is twisted or perverted to mean something else. They are “skunked” when they are used by so many people to mean so many different things that you can never be sure what a person means by them unless they give a definition every time they use it. One example is “liberal” and “liberalism”, and that these words have been skunked can be clearly seen in the two preceding posts.

“Communitarian” and “communitarianism”, on the other hand, have apparently been hijacked, at least by some people. I’ve blogged about this before here and here.

Communitarianism is a fairly new word, but the concept was developed by Catholic anarchists like Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and Ammon Hennessy to distinguish Christian anthropology from modernist secular anthropologies like individualism and collectivism. Even though there wasn’t a specific word for it, the concept has been around at least as long as Christianity has, and I’ve described it, with quotations from Orthodox theologians, in Love is the measure: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker | Khanya.

I didn’t realise how bad it had got, however, until I read this: Urban Dictionary: Communitarianism:

Communitarianism

buy communitarianism mugs, tshirts and magnets

n. The belief that a society is greater than the sum of its parts, and that the members of an organization ought to work toward improving the organization. Often accused to be ‘communist’ or ‘fascist’.

Communitarianism is perceived to be evil because it opposes the individualistic doctrine of our society.

I find it difficult to see how anyone could take such a “definition” seriously. For a start, “accused to be” is illiterate. The correct English idiom is “accused of being”, and “accused to be” is a solecism. Anyone who writes English that badly is not competent to write dictionary definitions.

The next problem is that we are not told the identity of those who make these accusations, nor are we told the identity of those who “perceive it to be evil”, nor are we told which society is meant by “our” society. But I think it is safe to assume that those who make the accusations and perceive communitarianism in this way are as ignorant as the writer of the definition.

My attention was drawn to this in a blog post by James Highham, whose blog I read fairly regularly, and find interesting, though I don’t always agree with everything he says, and in this instance, of course, I emphatically disagree.

nourishing obscurity : Four Great Lies:

The Fourth Lie – the “third way” – is an attempt to bring people in by the back door to the dark side of the duality and it utilizes the First Lie to good effect. Thus we get “communitarianism”, perverting the concept of local community and having a vast number of federalist controlled local communities, each under the influence and rubber stamping power of a Common Purpose graduate. Leading beyond authority, i.e. assuming powers which are not yours to assume and being answerable only to the oligarchy in the centre.

The thought of Dorothy Day being part of an “oligarchy at the centre” really is too much.

Worsened words

I took down my copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage this morning to check on something and my eye lit on the article on Worsened words.

Changes in the meaning of words, and still more in their emotional content, often reflect changes of opinion about the value of what they stand for. Occasionally a pejorative word becomes commendatory — Baroque and Prestige, for example — but more often it is the other way round.

Fowler gives several examples of such worsened words — imperialism and colonialism were in much more favour a century ago than they are today. But as Fowler points out, this is because the things they stand for are less in favour. The words have not changed their meaning.

Other words do seem to have changed their meaning since the Second World War, or at least seem to be thought of mainly in the light of bad examples, such as appeasement and collaborator. One that has suffered an almost complete change of meaning is propaganda.

A word that seems to be in danger of developing a purely bad meaning, especially in America, is epithet. Yet when we speak of “Jesus Christ”, “Christ” is in fact an epithet. Perhap it is because this particular epithet is so often used as an expression of annoyance that all epithets have been given a bad name.

And soon after reading and reflecting on this, I received the following e-mail, which gave another example of a worsening word:

We at christiancollegesonline.org recently came across your blog and were excited to share with you an article “10 Signs You’re in a Cult was recently published on our blog at (http://www.christiancollegesonline.org/blog/2010/10-signs-youre-in-a-cult/ ), and we hoped that you would be interested in featuring or mentioning it in one of your posts. If you find something interesting or similar, please let me know.

Well, I’ve mentioned it in my blog, but I have grave reservations about the misuse of the word “cult” as if it always and only means something bad.

The primary meaning of “cult” is a specific system of religious worship, and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with worshipping God.

But perhaps I’m just rather old-fashioned that way.

When I bought Fowler’s Modern English Usage I got the revised edition, brought up-to-date by Sir Ernest Gowers. But I look on the fly-leaf and see the date when I bought it — 23 December 1970 — nearly 40 years ago.

Rock-solid nebulous hot air

Hat-tip to Father David MacGregor of Contact Online Weblog: Ugandan Church faces totalitarian liberal activism. for pointing to this piece of rhetorical gobbledegook.

Anglican Mainstream: Ugandan Church faces totalitarian liberal activism.:

Chris Sugden Evangelicals Now Janaury 2010

The pressure on the Church of Uganda to respond to legislation that will be placed before the Ugandan Parliament on homosexual behaviour is not restricted to Uganda. This issue is affecting other democratic nations in Africa and Asia.”

Anyone who knows anything about the English language will know that “liberal” and “totalitarian” are about as far removed from each other in meaning as they can possibly be. It is impossible for anything, including activism, to be simultaneously liberal and totalitarian. It is no more possible than it is for something to be simultaneously wet and dry, or hot and cold, solid and liquid. The only place where you will find liberal totalitarians is skiing the slow-clad slopes of Sahara mountains in midsummer, or sunbathing on the sand-dunes of Siberia in mid-winter.

If you want people to pay attention to what you have to say, avoid such over-the-top rhetoric.

Recalling interesting children

I’ve been puzzled by two terms recently — “recall” and “interesting children”.

Recall, in the sense of calling to mind, or remembering, is well known. So is the idea of recalling someone to duty.

But a couple of years ago the news media began referring to a “recall referendum” for President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

That suggested that he had ceased to be president some time ago, and now was being recalled to duty as president, something similar to what happened to Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, until she was assassinated, so she didn’t return to office.

But no, President Chavez wasn’t returning to duty, since he was already there. The “recall” referendum actually meant just the opposite from what one would expect. It was not to recall him to duty as president, but actually to kick him out. In the event, he wasn’t kicked out, but stayed there.

But since then the talking heads on South African TV and radio have begun talking about the “recall” of the late President Thabo Mbeki. I haven’t heard anyone saying that Tony Blair was “recalled” as British prime minister, but perhaps that is not far off.

This came up for discussion in the alt.usage.english newsgroup, where people began discussing words that mean opposite things in American English and other varieties of English.

Two well-known examples are “table” and “moot point”. In most English speaking countries if you table a report, you present it to a committee or other deliberative body to consider and discuss. In American English, however, if you table a report, you do the opposite — you decide not to discuss or consider it.

Similarly, a “moot point” is usually a debatable one, one that one disagrees with, but in American English it means a point that is not worth debating.

So “recall” seems to be another word like “table” — meaning one thing in one place, and the opposite in other places.

Well, not quite, as it emerged from the discussion in alt.usage.english.

In the US, many elective offices, such as that of the president, are for a fixed term. There is no provision for presidents or governors or mayors to resign, as Tony Blair and Thabo Mbeki did. So in some cases they can have a kind of “unelection”, where they can unelect certain officials — not the president, apparently, but the governors of certain states and mayors of certain cities. And, paradoxical as it may seem, this “unelection” is called a “recall”; only instead of recalling someone to office, if there are enough votes, the person is removed from office.

So the talking heads better wise up. Thabo Mbeki was not “recalled”, not even in the American sense. He felt obliged to resign, which is something different. We did not have a general election to unelect him, which is what “recall” means in the American sense.

The other term, “interesting children”, is much older, and the problem with it is that nobody seems to remember what it meant.

It was found in death announcements in newspapers, especially in Ireland, about 150 years ago, where one would find things like “two interesting children died last week”. Or “Emma Jane Smith, daughter of Mr John Smith, an interesting child, died last Tuesday”.

It was obviously so familiar that no one saw fit to explain it, and now I can’t find anyone who knows what it actually means. I’ve written more fully about it in my genealogy blog.

If anyone has some definite information about it, please let me know.

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