bit of an inside joke, but still worth posting

Russell Smith says: I'm not begging the question, I'm just begging.

And in case you can't access it:
I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the major usage guides begin to give two meanings for the phrase "beg the question": one archaic, the other current. The phrase is now in such constant use in the media, particularly in the broadcast media, with the meaning "raise the question," that this usage must soon be considered standard.

This will be a terrible shame, of course, and so permit me, in my recently acquired role of quixotic defender of all things archaic, to lay out the argument for fighting this development for as long as we collectively can, like the last remaining humans defending the crumbling fortress against the hordes of vampire zombies. (Sorry, just watched that movie.)

Up to now, the accepted meaning, among educated people, of the phrase "beg the question" has been a fairly abstruse one. It is a principle from philosophy that means an argument that assumes as a premise the conclusion it arrives at. Basically, it means making a circular argument, like saying "This article is flawed because it is not perfect." A good example (from a useful site called alt-english-usage.org) is, "Telepathy cannot exist because direct transfer of thought between individuals is impossible."

The phrase comes from an archaic and clumsy translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii. And no wonder the translation is difficult: The Latin phrase is itself a translation from the Greek to en archei aiteisthai, which means "in the beginning to assume." The noun petitio (from the verb petere) can mean an attack, thrust, blow, request, application, standing for office or candidature. And principium can meaning either beginning or principle. So why "beg," and why "question"? A better translation for principium is probably "premise," and the idea of begging comes from petere as "asking for" or "requesting," a loose translation of the Greek idea of assuming. In other words, a better translation of petitio principii might be "assuming the premise" - in other words, taking for granted the premise on which your conclusion rests. The proposition is used to prove itself.

Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, a book I find very precise if frustratingly non-judgmental, notes that begging the question has also often been used to mean avoiding or ducking the question. The example it gives is this: Say you must prove that locusts are harmful, so you list proposals for counteracting the damage done by locusts. You may convince your audience, with your colourful anecdotes, of the necessity for taking these measures, but you have in fact not proved anything about locusts. This is, strictly, petitio principii. But this definition leads people to thinking that any kind of evading an issue in an argument is "begging the question," and Webster's gives various learned examples of this usage dating to 1860. The editors comment, with their usual cautiously diplomatic tone, that this is "a new meaning of beg that lexicographers must account for. It is fully established as standard."

Okay, well whatever the fine tuning on the logical process the phrase represents, it certainly has not meant, up to now, anything as simple as "bring up an obvious objection," or "raise the question." And this is how it is most commonly used on our airwaves. It's easy for a radio reporter who wants to challenge an interview subject to interject, "Ah, but your public-health initiative begs the question - how will we pay for it?"

Why do you encounter this on radio and TV but not so much in print? Not because writers are superior thinkers, actually, but because we have copy editors. I could no more get the colloquial use of "beg the question" past my editors here - a stern and ruthless bunch - than I could write something racist. Obviously, when you're talking, and particularly in a live broadcast, you don't have the opportunity to polish your language as do those of us who spend our days in ratty sweaters, making coffee and stroking cats and not talking to anyone. So I don't mean to be condescending to my fast-thinking counterparts in radio and TV. But I do worry about the influence of this repeated phrase. The erosion of the original meaning is now almost complete.

So now we are back to the old question: Who cares? If this is the common meaning of the phrase, then why fight it?

Two reasons: First, because it's not yet the common meaning of the phrase. There are still enough educated people around who believe the phrase has one meaning only, and they tend to be influential people. When those people are no longer in positions of power, you will no longer have to worry about impressing them, but it is still useful to do so if you want high marks or wonderful jobs. Second, because the idea of petitio principii is an interesting one and it is useful to have an English phrase for it. It is generally useful to have as many different words and phrases for as many different phenomena as possible; it makes your language a subtler instrument.

Furthermore, the past isn't inherently ridiculous just for being the past; the past is a delightful and fascinating place, full of wisdom and quirk. I respect it. It's pleasant to preserve some of its picturesque ruins in our speech, just as we do in our landscapes.

I have been reading The Diary of Samuel Pepys online, ever since the amazing Phil Gyford began posting it in January 2003. One of the many things I've learned from reading Pepys is how much the English language has changed, and is always changing. Many of the words Pepys uses in the 1660s now have the exact opposite meaning. Yet he also uses many slang expressions that we continue to use, some 350 years later, to mean the same thing. It's fascinating.

I tend to see language as more fluid and ever-changing, and am more willing to go with popular usage, than many people of similar literary bents. But I have my own language dislikes, patterns of popular usage that I am forever correcting, at least in my own mind. "Begging the question" doesn't happen to be one of them, but I can sympathize.

If you know what and who inspired this post, you've been hanging out with wmtc a long time. And I thank you for that.

No comments: