Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



Total Pageviews

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

WORDS


I am a philosopher by profession.  That means that my entire modus operandi is words.  I do not do much of anything or know much of anything qua philosopher.  Qua, by the way, is a term of art for us philosophers.  It means roughly "insofar as' or "in the role of."  For example, if I were to put a hippopotamus in a sling, raise it up with a freight helicopter, and then release the sling, the hippopotamus would fall to earth with a great big splat!  But it would not fall to earth qua hippopotamus.  That is to say, its being a hippopotamus would not be the reason for it to fall.  If it were, upon examination, to turn out to have been a small obese elephant that had lost its trunk, it would have fallen just as fast and made just as big a splat.  It would in fact be qua physical object that it had fallen.  [On the other hand, if I saw it marking its territory on a river bank by spraying feces, it would be qua hippopotamus that it did so, because that is how hippos mark their territory, unlike other territorial male animals that mark their territory with urine.  I have actually seen a hippo doing this in Africa.]

Which brings me to the subject of this post: disappointing words.  I am a writer [more so, perhaps, even than a philosopher, though I leave that to others to judge.]  I like words and I am constantly looking for words that do a good job for me.  egregious is such a word.  I really like it, and use it whenever I can.  eleemosynary is another nifty word, though I have less call for it than I do for egregious.  I am also very fond of meretricious, whose original meaning was "falsely alluring like a prostitute, " from  the Latin meretrix, which means "prostitute."

But some words are deeply disappointing, because despite their delicious sonority, they turn out, when one checks, not to mean anything like what one wants them to mean.  Recently, as I was composing what I hoped would be an elegantly derogatory characterization of the egregious David Brooks, I bethought me to describe him as crepuscular.  I had never actually used crepuscular before, but it sounded as though it ought to mean "extraordinarily stupid."  When I looked it up on Google, I was dismayed to find that it actually means "of, resembling, or relating to twilight."  Well, that certainly was not what I had in mind.  [I suppose I could have used it to suggest  that Brooks is dim-witted, but that is really a reach.]

I had the same experience a few days ago with effulgent, which I wanted to use as a synonym for lubricious [which means "Sexually stimulating; salacious" and by extension "Having a slippery or smooth quality."]  But effulgent turns out to mean "shining brightly; radiant" which is fine, but not what I had in mind at all.

There is clearly only one solution for this unpleasant state of affairs, and that is to adopt the guiding principle enunciated by Humpty-Dumpty in his colloquy with Alice:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all."

 

 

5 comments:

Wallace Stevens said...

Coincidentally, I recently looked up 'meretricious' to understand its exact meaning and origins. You are right about the connection to prostitutes, but there is a little bit more to the story that is interesting. The Latin word for prostitute, meretrix, in turn has as its root in the verb "to earn," to which is added the feminine ending "trix". So a prostitute was, in literal terms, a 'female earner'. In other words, there was no notion of a woman 'earning' by any other means. To say that a woman 'earned' could mean only one thing.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is really lovely. A great addition!

Paul said...

'Crepuscular' is a fabulous word. I believe that it can be appropriately used to disparage - it can describe the appearance of something or someone revealed when the rock is lifted or the dark veil rent - exposing the creature in its twilit world. A metaphorical extension of the term to crabbed, covert and paranoid political machinations and the like also seems fine to me. Having said that, Brooks looks at least passably human in his stock photos and I wouldn't apply the term to him.

Magpie said...

The story of how male hippos mark their territory and the mistaken use of "crepuscular" to describe that gentleman suggests to me you might have misspelt "crepuscular".

Try with an "a" instead of an "e".

Or maybe not (I'm no philosopher).

Jerry Fresia said...

A writer you surely are. Great blog!