17 June 2014


I'm not a linguistic fundamentalist; phrases and words do evolve in meaning whether one likes it or not. I just a poor old man who finds it hard keeping up, and finds himself often disliking what he is expected to keep up with.

I've devoted some posts to this phrase, neatly defined by Locke as Pressing a man with the Consequences of his own Principles or Concessions. I wonder if anyone can trace the origin of the more recent idea that it means "A personal attack". (I plan, tomorrow, to share with you an argumentum ad hominem of the great Eric 'Anglican Patrimony' Mascall.)
I take this Latin phrase to mean "For the sake of appearance". But it now seems to be used for a Form ... the sort of piece of paper which one fills in and sends back (or doesn't). When, and why ever was the original simple four-letter f-word replaced by (what, until I am provided with a justification, I will continue to regard as) a spurious and unnecessary piece of pseudo-Latin pomposity?
Vince Cable used this when declining to comment to journalists on Clegggate. What does the phrase mean, and what did Cable think it meant? Are the two the same? I've always taken it to mean "For this particular purpose".
When and why did this word lose all its previous meanings and take on its new life as a replacement for 'problem'?
When and why did these words supersede the verbs 'to place' and 'to find' and their derivatives? 'He located [=placed] the wine-glass on the table'. 'He located [=found] the lost sixpence under the table'. Two perfectly decent monosyllables with totally different meanings seem to have been replaced by a single ambiguous latinism, thus affording opportunities for confusion.

My working suspicion is that the origins of at least the last of these changes may lie in the desire of clerklets to sound Important and Official. One train company (I'm not making this up) has this announcement: "Safety Information is located adjacent to the doors". I would have written "Safety Information is beside the doors". (OK, you're right, it could even just be 'by', but my instinct is that this would be a trifle vaguer than 'beside'.)

This is not simply a matter of words of teutonic origin being preferable to gallicisms, latinisms and grecisms (although it often may be ... I remember as an eight year old being - helpfully - advised to write begin rather than commence). 'Problem', I presume, is Greek, and none the worse for it; and (I haven't checked) I wonder whether 'place' may have started its long life as plateia, the broad boulevard in Hellenistic town planning, upon which the action of Menandrian New Comedy was played out.

No; at bottom, what we have in all this is the process (an old and poor English joke coming up here) whereby village policemen, making official reports, wrote (so it was claimed) "I was proceeding down the High Street ..." instead of  "I was walking ...". It is the embarrassing tendency of the not-very-literate to overcompensate for their self-perceived inadequacies. I wonder if professional philologists have a term for it.

For us clergy, there is in fact a pastoral issue ... oops, problem ... here. When I was a curate in an extremely deprived South London inner city area (definitely not a 'location'), there were very many middle-aged white males who needed to make use of literacy mentoring. I gather this has not changed; I also gather that now there are groups, such as Bangladeshi women, whose English is sometimes not strong. I do not see why difficulties of communication, which such thoroughly worthy and decent people may have, need to be made worse just because some petty pen-pusher sitting in a railway office thinks that the unnecessary use of long pompous words will make him seem one hell of a guy. "located adjacent", indeed. One can just imagine him sitting at his plastic desk with all his shiny biros neatly arranged in his jacket pocket.


Little Black Sambo said...

I heard this announcement on a train: "This service will terminate in the Capital". Sinister!
Town councils are a rich source of this sort of language. One councillor, saying there was not enough room to store some pictures from the Town Hall, explained, "It is a matter of dimensional inadequacy".

motuproprio said...

My own 'bete-noir' (or King Charles' Head) in this vein is the common misuse of the phrase 'to beg the question'.

Martin said...

I think 'ad hoc' is sometimes used to mean 'random' or 'unplanned'.

Sue Sims said...

The nearest I can get to the word you want for this linguistic over-compensation is 'hypercorrection'. The term's most commonly used for syntax errors like 'My father took my sister and I to the cinema', where one would expect 'me'. Of course, a majority of English speakers in this country now use the nominative because generations of English teachers have nagged us to avoid constructions like 'My friend and me went shopping'.

Chris said...

"Ad hoc" I would say does mean "assembled for this particular purpose," but often has overtones of "assembled in haste and/or shoddily."

Patricius said...

Why is the word "noon" (mis)applied to midday? Surely it means the ninth hour?

Stephen said...

If you have children, then you know how your issue can have problems...

Melinda said...

"Problem" suggests there is something wrong. "Issue" removes such judgments, hence its popularity.

Flambeaux said...

In finance, we used the term "pro forma" when what was really meant was "ad hoc" analysis using a specific format (Balance Sheet, Income Statement, Statement of Cash Flows, etc.). But I don't expect finance people to actually know what the words they use mean.

I do recall, in debate prep in the early 1990s in North America I was taught that "argumentum ad hominem" was a personal attack and to always be avoided.

I suspect such an understanding came about because of a generation or two of half-educated debate and speech coaches. I have never before encountered this sense of "argumentum ad hominem".

rick allen said...

My old college Logic text (Copi, 1974) distinguishes, under "informal fallacies, fallacies of relevance," two forms of the argumentum ad hominem, an "abusive" (So-and-so is a liar, a bad person, etc.) and a "circumstantial" (You cannot believe both X, which you deny, and Y, which you affirm). The two are related, in that some quality or belief of the opponent is used against the persuasiveness of another proposition. But both are still fallacies of relevance, since a person's bad moral qualities, or intellectual inconsistencies, have no direct bearing on the truth of the particular proposition at issue.