January 04, 2005

Hip to be square

Cameron Majidi sends in a possible eggcorn sighting, from (of all places) Philosophers' Carnival VII: the Holiday Edition.

A carnival, in this sense, is a regular round-up of recent posts from a topically-defined region of the blogosphere. Like a traveling show, a blog carnival usually moves from (blog) place to (blog) place. Thus the Philosphers' Carnival page tells us that Philosophers' Carnival #1 was hosted by Richard Chappell at Philosophy, et cetera, and Carnival #2 by Brandon Watson at Siris, and so on to the seventh and latest, hosted by Chris at Mixing Memory. For a small sampler of other blog carnivals, check out the Carnival of the Canucks, the Carnival of the Capitalists, the Carnival of the Cats -- and that's just part of the letter C!

Anyhow, Cameron draws our attention to this item in P.C. VII, which references a post at The Leiter Report entitled "Drebenized":

Burton Dreben is known for believing

Philosophy is garbage. But the history of garbage is scholarship.


Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.

In response, John Rawls writes:

The crucial questions in understanding Burt's view are: What is philosophical understanding? What is it the understanding of? How does understanding differ from having a theory? I wonder how I can give answers to these questions in my work in moral and political philosophy, whose aims Burt encourages and supports. Sometimes Burt indicates that my normative moral and political inquiries do not belong to philosophy proper. Yet this raises the question. Why not? And what counts as philosophy?

Brian Leiter (who is responsible, indirectly, for the square quotes around the word "analytic," by the way) wonders what philosophers think about this. Read the whole post, and let him know in a comment. [emphasis added]

As Cameron points out, the phrase "square quotes" seems to be a malapropism in which square is substituted for the similar-sounding word scare.

Sometimes such word substitutions are a sort of word-level typographical error, where the speaker or writer knows perfectly well what the right word is, but produces the wrong one by a slip of the brain. Alternatively, someone may make the substitution confidently and reliably, having learned the wrong word in the first place. This is usually the result of substituting a familiar word that makes sense in context for an unfamiliar or unexpected one, either as an individual creative act or due to being led astray by someone else. In junior high school, I read about (what I thought must be) "maniac depression", and I recall being puzzled that the second 'a' kept being omitted, over and over again, in printed references to this condition. Or the substitution may be a deliberate piece of word play. Since that's the most charitable interpretation, I'll adopt it here, and assume that Chris at Mixing Memory meant to suggest that analytic philosophy is square while continental philosophy is hip. Or perhaps, more precisely, that analytic philosophy is "square" while continental philosophy is "hip". Or even that "analytic" philosophy is "square" while ...

The net has several hundred other examples of this substitution. Some are probably jokes; others are pretty clearly brainos, as in the comment on this post which uses "scare quotes" early on and then "square quotes" in the same meaning a few lines later; and with others, we can't tell.

Cameron's email ended with the observation that some East Asian orthographies really do use "square quotes", 「as in this example」, making the scare quotessquare quotes substitution all the easier for those who may be familiar with such symbols. By coincidence, this same fact once led me (and no doubt some others) into a different word substitution error in linguistic terminology. A traditional term for Japanese pitch accent, dating at least to the 1950s, was "accent kernel". Although I don't know the history, I assume that this term was intended to evoke the metaphor of the accent as a sort of central core, located within a particular syllable, whose larger envelope of acoustic effects was distributed more widely in the surrounding utterance. In any case, I first encountered this term when I was a graduate student, in a lecture given by a Japanese linguist, who also used symbols similar to "square quotes" as a convenient typographical representation for the points in a word or phrase where a pitch rise or fall is aligned, something like this:

= /syakai+seido/ "social system", with the accent kernels presented as square corners added with a pen to a typed handout, or written on the board in chalk. Combined with the speaker's difficulty with the English r/l distinction, this typography led me to adopt -- and for a while to use -- the term "accent corner".

Frankly, I've always felt that "accent corner" is a much better term than "accent kernel". And as Geoff Pullum has pointed out, you can't look up everything, though in this case I did learn the terminological truth, after a few months, when I read a 1950s-era paper that discussed Japanese prosody with reference to "accent kernels". Whether the proprietor of Philosophers' Carnival VII intended "square quotes" as a hip joke, or just produced it as a slip of the fingers because square is about 15 times commoner than scare, I'm glad to have it added to my vocabulary.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 4, 2005 11:53 AM