Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Loaded Words

When a university got a new president recently, he declared at his inaugural address to all staff that everybody mattered, and everybody made a difference. The egalitarian note of his message soured slightly, however, when he innocently added: ‘Even if you are a cleaner’. A Freudian slip, perhaps?

Even is a loaded word. What he might have said was: ‘Whether you are a cleaner or a professor, you make a valuable contribution to the university.’

This reminds me of that famous quote by the great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor, but honest.’

A variation on this appears in many discussions in Philosophy and in Pragmatics (a branch of linguistics concerning the meaning of language in use):

He was poor but honest.

Of course, but carries the implication (or conventional implicature, to give its technical name) that poor people are, by nature, dishonest. To avoid this implicature, and is preferred: He was poor and honest.

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