The Missing Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

It would be so easy to latch on to one particular section in cunning linguist Steven Pinker’s new book, The Stuff of Thought. It’s full of expletives, cussing, and good old swear words. There’s a serious point to Pinker’s use of so many taboo words, and it interesting to say the least to hear him using them in interviews and to watch the unprepared interviewer squirm.

But, that’s as maybe. For a blog post aimed at a general audience it would be inappropriate to use some of the more savoury language discussed. Moreover, the post, and potentially the Sciencebase website itself could so easily be tagged as containing adult contact and be filtered out by search engines, proxy servers and nanny software. I could use asterisks to mask off the vowels, but you’d still know what words I was citing and it would look silly. More to the point, while the expletives, their context and usage are fascinating and certainly worthy of close scrutiny, it is the words that Pinker admits do not actually exist that are of most interest.

So what words can we discuss that don’t exist? Well, for instance, why is there no gender-free term for a single member of a herd of cattle in common usage? It sounds wrong to discuss “a cattle”, but on occasions when you do not know the sex of the bovine in question you cannot differentiate between a cow and bull.

And, what about a politically correct word to use instead of the uncomfortable his or her in a sentence where some people might use the grammatically incorrect “their” as a PC alternative. Similarly, there is apparently no emotion-free word for a heterosexual partnership as there is for married couples (spouse) or gay couples (partner). Pinker himself often feels obliged to qualify mention of his own partner as being a woman to save confusion, but suggests that lover is too romantic while, flatmate is not only too unromantic, but is seriously ambiguous, as is the word partner. I’m sure there are many more examples, but Pinker delves into what these missing words (actually the singular cattle is one of my pet peeves) tell us about language and how we think.

You can download a very entertaining interview with Pinker from The Grauniad (mp3 format, 33Mb).

9 thoughts on “The Missing Stuff of Thought”

  1. Holland is actually a region in the Netherlands (actually it’s North and South Holland combined) but even the Dutch call their country Holland sometimes.

    Dutch apparently has its roots in the word “dietsch” or simply “diets”, from “diet” meaning “people” in Dutch.

    courtesy of five minutes with wikipedia :)

  2. Another example of oddities in language, came to mind listening to a comedy podcast. Why is there one country with two different names in English – Holland and The Netherlands and yet the people of that country are called the Dutch? Maybe I missed that lesson in geopolitical history at school…can anyone enlighten me?

  3. On a slightly different note, “there is apparently no emotion-free word for a heterosexual partnership”, I believe it was Diane Ackerman in “A Natural History of Love” who came up with the word, ‘covivant’ to cover the general relationship of “boy/girlfriend with whom I am living, but not necessarily planning on getting married to”. I never read it as being exclusively for a heterosexual relationship however – perhaps since I have so many friends who are not heterosexual…


  4. Hah! Yes, Grauniad is very much a Private Eye joke. It was quite commonly used in our junior common room decades ago, along with quasi and pseud’s corner etc etc. I used to work for the old Grauniad on a fairly regular freelance basis when Tim Radford was at the helm of the science section, a piece on painkillers from snake venom even made the front cover of that section (13 years ago, shhh, don’t let on to anyone I’m that old, will you?)

  5. You talk of mashing expletives for circumventing censorship, and of avoiding doing so, yet at the end of the post we see the Private Eye-esque anagram Grauniad. Are you hoping to avoid the traffic of those searching for the nearly-aforementioned paper in their search engine? Or is nanny software so discerning and conservative these days that such papers are omitted from results as a matter of course?

    That’s enough Grauniad bashing. Jon.

  6. I was taught that to avoid using “disabled” one should use “differently abled”, at which I still can’t help but laugh today. And the word “abled” is not included in my dictionary. My latest post has a table of proper language.

  7. Yes, the whole “disabled-differentl abled” issue is akin, but slightly more sensitive, than the idea of “caffeinated coffee”, as if there were some process by which the stimulating alkaloid would be added to coffee beans for those who prefer not to drink decaff.

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