Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

EGA and I have been talking about words and phrases that are so frequently used incorrectly that they have taken on the incorrect meaning. "Begs the question" is a particular peeve that we share, as is "peruse". The former, for the record, is a term of art used in logic. It is a type of logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises. Begging the question is similar to circular argument. If you are using it to mean something like, "invites the inquiry" you are wrong, except that almost nobody uses it to mean "circular reasoning", and nearly everyone uses it to mean, "invites the inquiry", so now the phrase has lost its meaning, and EGA and I are forced to consider whether a statement is circular whenever we hear someone use the expression.

"Peruse", by the way, means to examine closely. For some reason people think it means to skim, or to scan. ("Scan" itself has this property.) This is almost a sub-catigory: words that have taken on their opposite meaning. ""Literally"" is another. Jesse Sheidlower says these are called "Janus words," "contranyms," or "auto-antonyms," and mentions also cleave ("to stick to" and "to split apart"), dust ("to remove dust from" and "to sprinkle dust upon"), moot ("able to be discussed; arguable" and "purely theoretical"). I'm not so sure that we are talking about exactly the same thing-- Sheidlower, who's the lexographer, to be sure, seems to be taking a relativist stand here that may be appropriate when studying how people use words, but seems wrong to me when we are talking about meaning. Ambiguity is a lawyer's bread and butter, of course, but so too is clarity.

I say using the word to mean its opposite is mis-use. Anybody have any other candidates for our collection?

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