Midweek Semantic Snobbery

I was reading a dissertation recently and encountered a strangely satisfying statement.  After identifying a flawed argument, the author stated, “Arguably this is to beg the question.”

This was satisfying because it was the first correct use of the expression I had seen in quite some time.

Expressions mysteriously enter the public lexicon and find themselves uncritically worn out by the lazy circularity of popular discourse.

Recent victims include “at the end of the day” and “game changer.”  There are others.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, someone mentioned that George W. Bush needed to select a running mate with “gravitas,” leading commentators to bludgeon the public with this new weapon.

Erstwhile Daily Show “correspondent” Mo Rocca asked a senator if Dick Cheney added “gravitas” to the GOP ticket.  As a follow-up, Rocca inquired whether the senator thought it was a “milk-based gravitas.”

Brilliant.

Somehow, “begging the question” has entered popular usage and is invariably used wrongly.  I’ve seen it in student papers, heard it in conversations with friends, and—this is the final straw—recently heard it uttered by Hannah Storm on Sportscenter.

“Begging the question” is not a synonymous expression for “raising the question.”  An example of wrong usage: “Bill Buckner’s career statistics beg the question of why he isn’t in the Hall of Fame.”  His career numbers raise the question, demanding an explanation.  Begging the question has nothing to do with it.

If one “begs the question,” one commits a logical fallacy, asserting as an argument the very conclusion one needs to prove.

Surely Tony Kornheiser, English major, wordsmith, and co-host of my favorite program, would know better.

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8 responses to “Midweek Semantic Snobbery

  • joey

    You might enjoy the book “Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide “To Better English In Plain English.”

  • Craig Beard

    Thanks, Tim. I’m glad to know that you’re standing up to grammatical devolution.

  • Hamlette

    A bit off topic but I am well and truly done with “not least” and “bits,” NT Wright expressions that have been adopted by an alarming number of bloggers/theologians. The semantic equivalent of high fructose corn syrup.

    • timgombis

      Funny, but many do imitate the language usage of their mentors. E.g., R. Hays’s students’ usage of “moreover.”

      • Hamlette

        Ha! I thought moreover was more a Hauerwas thing! But the principle seems to hold. Someone could make a tidy sum by writing a little monograph on How to Write Like a Theologian. There’s a theological vocabulary that often does nothing to advance or aid one’s understanding. It’s just the accepted way to write.

      • timgombis

        “Moreover” is surely a Hauerwasism, too, in addition to his resistance to contractions. I don’t know what it is about Hauerwas’s prose, but it’s so easy to spot.

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