July 26, 2007

The ecology of peevology

Over on OUPblog I write today about the use of the word carbon to generate new eco-buzzwords like carbon-neutral and carbon footprint. A letter-writer on Salon recently got into a tizzy over this point, saying that the new usage confuses carbon with carbon dioxide. As I explain in the OUPblog column, there are perfectly good reasons for referring to carbon rather than carbon dioxide in expressions like carbon-neutral, but it's nonetheless true that carbon is often used these days to refer elliptically to the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the comments section on Salon, the initial argument over carbon semantics spilled over into generalized griping about disfavored buzzwords and linguistic imprecision. As should be unsurprising to Language Log readers, the Salon commenters opened up yet another forum for linguistic naming and shaming. As is typical of such forums, the subjects of the complaints were all over the map, from dialectal variants (acrost) to pleonasms (free gift) to punctuation issues (the serial comma) to common eggcorns (hone in on) to Briticisms creeping into American usage (went missing). All in all, it's a good example of what the nonpareil linguablogger Mr. Verb has taken to calling peevology.

Mr. Verb's adoption of peevology was inspired by a recent column by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe (though she spelled it peeve-ology), which in turn was inspired by a Language Log post I wrote a couple of years ago on peeveblogging. In his latest post on the topic, "Peevology and its semantic field," Mr. V considers whether peevology should properly refer to the collection and public airing of language peeves, or instead to the study of such peevish behavior (as Freeman had originally intended). Interestingly enough, two commenters in the Salon forum raised a parallel question with the word ecology:

Comment 1: People always tal[k]ed about being upset about the "ECOLOGY," when that wasn't what they meant at all. -OLOGY means the "study of," whether it's theology or psychology or whatever. Ecology just means the study of eco systems or the environment.

Comment 2: As a biologist I have the same reaction when someone claims something is bad for "the ecology." Ecology is a field of study, like biology, geology, and all the other -ologies. I doubt they mean that using plastic shopping bags is bad for the study of organisms and the way they interact with their environment. What people are trying to say is that plastic shopping bags are bad for the environment.

Ecology has indeed expanded its semantic range from the scholarly study of the environment to the environment itself. It's also taken on extended meanings to refer to complex systems that mirror the interrelatedness of the natural ecosystem, as in the ecology of language. Such polysemy is endemic to our linguistic ecology, so it's fitting that the neologism peevology should develop its own polysemous behavior right out of the gate.

[John Cowan writes in: "My psychology is such that I get peeved when people complain about the extension of -ology from the field of study to the object of study."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at July 26, 2007 09:51 AM