Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Quote of the day - Steven Pinker (April 3, 1994)

I found this during a "Wiki-Wander" a while back, starting at a post at Weer'd's place, through a few Wikipedia entries, and ending up at a New York Times Op-Ed piece from April 3, 1994, written by Harvard psychology/cognition/linguistics professor Steven Pinker, entitled "The Game of the Name" (PDF warning).

Steven Pinker in 2011
(source: Wikipedia)
This will actually be a two-fer Quote of the Day because there's some context required. First, we need to describe a concept Mr. Pinker calls the "euphemism treadmill":
People invent new "polite" words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.
To sum up, a politically-correct and -neutral term becomes emotionally charged -- and therefore offensive -- and so it must be replaced by a new politically-correct and -neutral term. As an example, Mr. Pinker offers the word "slum," which was replaced by "ghetto," which was in turn replaced by "inner city," and has since reverted back to "slum" (presumably because "slum" has "healed" from its negative connotations).

Now that that's out of the way, we get to the real Quote of the Day:
The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name.
So, what does all this psycho-babble have to do with a gun blog, you ask?

Two words: "Gun Safety".

I'll leave the inferences and conclusions to you, dear readers. Feel free to sound off in the comments; I have some additional thoughts, but I'd like to know what you all think.


  1. A rose, is a rose, is a rose...

    A secretary is an office assistant, is an interface engineer...

    A stewardess is a cabin attendant, is a waitress in a bad restaurant at 38,000 feet. (Tam Keel)

    1. The Mistress of Snark, still hitting from afar.

      I've found people quoting her pithy comments everywhere. Do you think we can start calling them "Tam Drone Strikes"? ;)

    2. The Tam would never cotton to anything as pedestrian as a drone strike. Now, a Tam carpet bombing...

    3. ... is a burning field of "F*ck Yeah!"

      Like a "nuke from orbit", but with style! :)

  2. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

    They can call it "gun safety" or "gun sense" or "gun liberation" or "gun freedom" or "gun wholesomeness" but it will stink to high heaven of confiscation and oppression. They would not know real gun safety if the Four Rules bit them on the posterior and hung on like pit bull.

    So, of course, they have to rebrand and reshuffle the players to seem relevant, but deep down they are just Brown Shirts waiting to disarm me so I cannot resist their desires to rule over all things.

  3. Bingo. The concept taints the verbiage; the verbiage does not clean up the concept.

    However, note that by assuming the term, "gun safety", they are starting to encroach on areas where pro-gun groups have traditionally shined. The NRA has always been the biggest and most successful organization when it comes to teaching real gun safety practices, and the NSSF has been the best at pushing product safety standards industry-wide.

    Personally, I don't think this is an accident OR happenstance. Bloomberg/Watts et al may not be aware of the "euphemism treadmill", but I don't believe for a second that their assuming a term traditionally used by our side is unintentional. I think the antis want to steal some of NRA/NSSF's "authority" when it comes to real "gun safety" -- it will end up tainting the term, but that works for the antis just as well.