There are lots of ways to misuse words. Today I’m only going to talk about four. I’m interested in the situation that occasionally arises with emotionally or politically charged terms. It’s been happening for a long time with “terrorist”, we all watched it happen over the last year or two with “fake news”, and yesterday I heard someone say that it’s happening with “gaslighting”, although I haven’t noticed that one myself. Sometimes people talk about the phenomenon by saying “when people say [word] what they really mean is [concept]”. Here the concept is not what you’d expect a dictionary to say the word meant; it’s the concept that applies to the things these people in fact apply the word to. For example:
- ‘When people say “terrorist” what they really mean is “enemy combatant”.’
- ‘When people say “fake news” what they really mean is “news unfavourable to me”.’
- ‘When people say “gaslighting” what they really mean is “saying things I don’t agree with”.’
I don’t think this is usually the best way of putting it, and I think it obscures the distinction between at least four ways of misusing words.
Ignorance: The word conventionally means one thing, but I use it to mean something else, because I’m mistaken about the convention. For example, if I thought that “cat” meant what “octopus” means, and so I said “cats live underwater and have eight tentacles”. Or I might think that “fake news” meant what “untrue news” means, and use the term “fake news” to describe any news story I don’t think is true.
Lying: I know what concept the word conventionally expresses, but I use it for things that concept doesn’t apply to because I want to mislead people. For example, I might want people to think that cats live underwater and have eight tentacles, and so I’d say “cats live underwater and have eight tentacles”. Or a news story might come out which wasn’t favourable to me, and so I’d mislead people into thinking it was deliberately made up by saying “that’s fake news”.
Bullshit: I don’t really care what the word means, and I may not know what it means, but I do think that it’d be rhetorically advantageous to apply the word to it so I go ahead and do it. For example, I might have heard people calling stories “fake news” and getting some rhetorical mileage out of it, so I call stories I don’t like “fake news” as well.
Inflation/Defining Down: I know that using the word for something stretches the conventions governing the word without necessarily breaking them, but I use the word anyway because I want people to categorize it with the central cases. For example, I might refer to something as fake news when it was really a result of a combination of sloppy reporting and wishful thinking, because I want people to lump the reporter in with people who deliberately make stories up.
There’s probably some overlap here, and one kind of use might shade into another. But I think only the first one is properly a case of using a word when what you really mean is something else. Maybe, when people say “when people say X they just mean Y” they’re usually being metaphorical and just mean “when people say X it just means Y”. But maybe not. And there’s a difference between what someone means by a word and what you can infer from the fact they’re using the word. I don’t think people who talk this way always have that distinction clearly in mind. It’s a pretty fuzzy distinction in a lot of cases, so that’d be understandable, but the distinction’s there. I think in at least some cases this is part of the irksome tendency on the part of a certain kind of person to attribute all the ills of the world to the imprecise use of language.