It’s been a little while since the Word Nerd has taken over, and she gets a little testy when she doesn’t get to pontificate. Since tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, it’s better to let her have the floor now so I can have a somewhat peaceful holiday.
Lord knows I don’t want her and Luke to get into a hissing match.
A reader wondered about misuse of the phrase “beg the question,” noting that it makes it hard to correct someone else when you don’t know how to use the phrase either.
I’m with you there, reader. It’s annoying when you’re positive something is wrong, but you can’t really say why. It’s like that old test for obscenity—you just know it when you see it.
The New York Times’ Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards who is also in charge of the Times’ style manual, has tackled this particular phrase a few times, noting that, in precise usage, “it does not mean ‘to raise the question’ or ‘to beg that the question be asked’ or even ‘to evade the question.’ Rather, it refers to a circular argument; it means ‘to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.’”
So if you say that someone is worthy of heavy news coverage, using as evidence said heavy news coverage, you’ve used the logical fallacy of begging the question, and probably irritated at least a few logical beings.
Beg the Question, an online site that started as an April Fool’s joke, is dedicated to stamping out misuse of the phrase, which it says “is an understandable error: the original Latin term petitio principii was translated into English in the 16th century as ‘beg the question.’”
The site says some believe the phrase would be better translated today as “laying claim to the principle.” While words do change in meaning over time, the abuse here, according to Beg the Question, is from a misunderstanding of the original use.
Shocking, I know.
Generally, in most cases, someone is raising a question. Unless it’s an online comment board … those who are legitimately raising questions seem to be wildly overpowered by those “people” (I use the term loosely) who insist that, for example, someone is honest simply because he says he is, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Danged evidence … always messing up good false narratives. And for you comment board people who throw out that “false narrative” charge like it’s candy (I’m lookin’ at you, Mozarky):
A longtime correspondent says he’s been hearing things like “I don’t want to be somebody’s whipping post,” or “It seems he’s the team’s whipping post.”
He asks (tongue in cheek, of course): “How did we slip from whipping boy to whipping post without the use of a clutch? Is it because feminists don’t like words like fireman and postman, and whipping girl conflicts with their domestic-abuse programs? … Here’s my conspiracy theory: A group of radicals out there systematically makes changes to commonly accepted language (whipping boy to whipping post, problems to issues, [several] to gay, etc.) to see how many converts to the new usage can be garnered in a period of time.”
As a conspiracy theory, that one’s not too outlandish, which means you’re gonna have to crazy it up a little. However, I have no good answer … other than, perhaps, yet another misunderstanding. That happens far too much, it seems … which sort of lends credence to those radical grammarians.
A whipping boy, says Phrasefinder, is “a scapegoat. One who is singled out for blame or punishment. … Whipping Boy was an established position at the English court during the Tudor and Stuart monarchies of the 15th and 16th centuries. This may not have been quite as bad as it sounds. The whipping boys weren’t hapless street urchins living a life of torment, but high-born companions to the royal princes. They were educated with the princes and shared many of the privileges of royalty. The downside was that, if the prince did wrong, the whipping boy was punished. It was considered a form of punishment to the prince that someone he cared about was made to suffer.”
And yet, I’m not convinced the prince felt all that bad about it.
It wasn’t until the mid-1850s, though, that the term referred to a scapegoat with no actual whipping involved.
A whipping post, on the other hand, is traditionally the post to which one is tied to be whipped—the Allman Brothers got that right in their song, “Whipping Post.” Others, however, like Donald Trump, have gotten it wrong, proclaiming themselves as whipping posts.
Frankly, I’d vote for a whipping post long before I’d vote for The Donald. And it would probably be less offensive and give far more intelligent answers.
What to do about people who insist on using “whipping post” when they mean “whipping boy?” I’d say that calls for towel whips and noogies. And a dictionary.
Just a reminder: It’s very simple to get a letter published—all you have to do is be truthful in statements of fact, make opinion clear, and keep it acceptable for publication in a family newspaper (if Grandma would smack you for it, don’t say it).
Please remember that we do fact-check, and the more things that have to be checked, the longer it takes. We can’t print everything, nor can we always have a completely balanced page; we work with what we have at a given moment, so sometimes there will be more liberal letters, sometimes more conservative letters, and sometimes no political letters at all … OK, that I’m still waiting for.
The page reflects what usable letters we get on various subjects, which rarely (if ever) are divided along how people in the state voted, and it would be next to impossible to achieve such a balance on a daily basis. That would also assume that people always hew to party talking points rather than consider other viewpoints or change their minds.
Reality just doesn’t work that way.
The point is that if you’re not finding at least one thing on the page you disagree with, then I’m not doing my job, and if you’re offended by opinions that don’t reflect your own, you’re probably in the wrong place.
Speaking of, in next week’s column, I intend to focus on misinterpretation of straightforward things, usually based on personal or political bias. For example:
What President Obama says: I am a Christian.
What partisans hear: Allahu Akbar!!!!!
What he really meant: Seriously, dudes, give it a rest and listen. I. Am. A. Christian.
Have suggestions for statements I can use? Put ’em in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.