Misuse of language

The way we misuse phrases and quotations may tell us something about how our brains work. I give three common examples. The first is “Now is the winter of our discontent”, which comes from Shakespeare’s play Richard III. The line refers to an ebb in discontent (for the house of York in Richard III’s case). Winter is meant to be a modifier of discontent. However, people almost universally use discontent as a modifier of winter as in there is an entire season of discontent and now we’re in the winter part of it. Even Steinbeck used it as the title of his book to indicate a state of disaffection. Some rephrase it to “Winter of Discontent” which could be thought of as a clever ironic pun of Shakespeare. However, if you think about it “Winter of our discontent” makes most sense when used as Shakespeare did.

Now why is it misused? I think part of it is laziness. Most people have never read Richard III. However, it may also be evidence that our memory for language is an attractor (Hopfield) neural network. In this idea, memories are attractors in a dynamical system each with a basin of attraction. “Winter of our discontent” is remembered as a complete phrase separate from its component words. If it was incorrectly associated with disenchantment the first time we encountered it, then it may be frozen as such. So the next time we wanted to express the sentiment (and who is more poetic and profound than Shakespeare) we would call up this quote without an examination of the true meaning.

The second misquote is “If music be the food of love, play on” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Most people use this quote as a positive statement about music. However, it actually is a negative statement about love. In the play, Orsino is heartbroken and wants to hear so much music that he will be come nauseated and no longer have any interest in love. In this case, I can see why it would be misused the way it has. Music is a surrogate for love so let’s have more of it.

The third oft misused phrase and one that irks me the most is “begging the question”. This term, which refers to a circular argument that presumes the truth of an assumption, is commonly used as a substitute for “raises the question”. I’ve heard many hyper-educated people misuse this phrase. People will say “The fact that X happens begs the question…”. I think in this case, people have heard this term in their youth but never understood what it really meant. However, it remained lodged in their memory and is now retrieved whenever a situation calls upon a particular question. In time I think this new and incorrect usage will eventually dominate and become accepted. This is too bad because now more than ever we really need to challenge those that “beg the question”.

12 thoughts on “Misuse of language

  1. Now is the winter of our discontentMade glorious summer by this sun of York;And all the clouds that lour’d upon our houseIn the deep bosom of the ocean buried. Anne


  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/16/opinion/16wed4.htmlThe Point of Miss Gould’s PencilBy VERLYN KLINKENBORG I never met Miss Gould. But deep in a box at home are the proofs of articles I once wrote for The New Yorker, and in the margins is the handwriting of Eleanor Gould Packard – the magazine’s venerable arbiter of style, who died on Sunday at 87. I thought I knew a lot about the English language at the time. I had a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton, an old-fashioned kind of doctorate with an emphasis on literary history and textual editing. So it came as a surprise to see those proofs. Broader questions had been settled. But it was clear from Miss Gould’s annotations – her very direct strictures – that a few details of syntax, usage and logic still needed to be fixed.I reacted the way I suppose many writers did when they first saw a Gould proof – with disbelief and dismissal. But a writer soon learns to welcome anyone who can offer real insight into the nature of prose, and that Miss Gould could certainly do. I learned from her neatly inscribed comments that even though I was writing correctly – no syntactical flat tires, no grammatical fender-benders – I was often not really listening to what I was saying. That may seem impossible to a reader who isn’t a writer. But Miss Gould’s great gift wasn’t taking writers seriously. It was taking their words seriously. No writer, at first, is quite prepared for that.Miss Gould managed to seem larger than life without ever leaving the margins of the unpublished page. To some people, I suspect, she came to embody the negative image of the copy editor: punctilious, schoolmarmish and blue-stockinged. But the grasp she had on the written word, on the inner springs and impulses of the language, made grammar and syntax and diction resemble the laws of physics. From one angle, those laws mark the limits of nature. From another angle, they define the very energies that shape the universe and make it intelligible. Anne


  3. No; I have thought again and I will argue with your fine argument. As long as I wish to read Richard carefully, I can come to Shakespeare’s meaning. But, Shakespeare’s meaning can be pleayed with and made my meaning. Why not? I can choose to read as creatively as Shakespeare wrote; not really but I can flatter myself. Happily I grew with Pogo Possum as an early gift. Why can I not play with language?


  4. Right you are, for I have asked often since your interesting post appeared. Even playing with language when done well will leave an original meaning clearly intact. Argue though I may, I agree with you :) Thank you, Carson.


  5. You say “The line refers to an ebb in discontent” but don’t you mean “the sentence”? The play is written in verse, so the bit that signals the ebb (sun of York) is really in the second line.


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