July 05, 2006

Four more examples of linguifying

I still get people writing to me to say they don't understand about the phenomenon I mused on here and other places, and later decided to dub linguification. Why not (they ask me) simply classify Daniel Gilbert's turn of phrase as simply an exaggeration? Well, I answer that here ). But encouragingly, a number of people have cottoned on to what I'm talking about, and have sent me new cases of linguifying. Here is one from from Jonathan Lundell:

The bus continued its extended left turn toward Santo Fico's newest building--the Palazzo Urbano. Built before the turn of the century to house all the government offices, the faded two-story palazzo now stood empty and in disrepair. Most of the windows were locked and shuttered and apparently nobody had even mentioned the word paint in its presence for many years.
[from The Miracles of Santo Fico, by Dennis L. Smith]

The underlying claim: that the palazzo had not been repainted in many years, and was in sufficiently bad repair that one could imagine that no one had even so much as planned or considered any repair or painting work on it. But of course, for anyone interested in carrying out some refurbishment on the palazzo, mentioning the word paint on site is neither necessary (you could do your planning elsewhere and then send painters round) nor sufficient (mentioning the word paint over and over again while standing in the shadow of the palazzo would accomplish nothing). The underlying claim has been linguified. (Notice, this is a case where the linguified claim might well be true: perhaps no one had done any painting and no one had done any talking either. Perhaps nobody had been anywhere near the empty Palazzo Urbano for years. As I defined it (here), linguification often involves shifting from a possibly true claim to a definitely false one, but not always.)

Ran Ari-Gur sent me this very clear case:

[...] when people are talking about me, the words 'computer' and 'savvy' are never in the same sentence... [from http://www11.brinkster.com/asij1993/News/UpdateSprFall00.asp]

The underlying claim: people don't refer to me as being computer savvy. But the linguification is again neither necessary nor sufficient. People could refer to someone as computer savvy without using either of those words at all ("He knows his way round the network, both hardware and software, whether it's Wintel or Mac or Linux, and he can fix things in the dark with one hand tied to his swivel chair"), and they can use the two words in the same sentence without attributing the property ("Jason may be savvy about a lot of things, like maybe masturbation and surfing, but computer savvy he ain't; he's a computational nincompoop").

Lesley Graham sent me this one:

Millar is no angel - an arrogant, out-spoken man guilty of injecting EPO...but he's served a 2 year ban and while he may not have found humility he's certainly looked it up in the dictionary.
[from http://www.caledoniacalling.com/]

The underlying claim is that Millar may have modified his behavior very slightly in the direction running from extreme arrogance toward total humility. But the claim that he has looked humility up in a dictionary is a linguification (and doubtless false: even the most arrogant people there are — i.e., mathematical economists — know the word).

And Tom Phillips makes the very interesting point that the wonderful and much missed Douglas Adams (he of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) had not only spotted that there was something a little odd about linguified claims before the end of the Reagan administration, he had included a humorous undercutting of a linguification in his less well-known 1987 novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:

WFT-II was the only British software company that could be mentioned in the same sentence as such major U.S. companies as Microsoft or Lotus. The sentence would probably run along the lines of "WFT-II, unlike such major U.S. companies as Microsoft or Lotus ..." but it was a start.

Spot on, Douglas! And thanks, Jon and Ran and Lesley and Tom. You, like Rob Chametzky, get the point. This is not some already known figure of speech like hyperbole or metaphor or catachresis or synechdoche. It's a peculiar, and I suspect fairly modern, literary conceit. And to repeat myself, I simply don't see why people think it is a good idea. Are the above examples funny? Thought-provoking? Witty? Revealing? Poetic? Do they convey a point in some especially sharp, hit-the-nail-on-the-head way? Not as far as I can see. It is clear that many people think linguification is a great idea. I just don't see why.

By the way, I hesitate to put out another call for contributions here, but... What's the earliest linguification anyone can find? What can we find that is dated before 1987?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 5, 2006 09:32 PM