In Defense of Semantic Quibbling

This is in the Bad Linguistics category, but not an official entry in the series, as I’d prefer to reserve that for scientifically inept interpretations of linguistic evidence, and not just people misunderstanding why linguistics matters, because that would generate so many entries the number on the post would overflow.

“Let’s not quibble about semantics.”

It’s the ultimate shutdown. How many times have you heard this in an argument? How many times have you used this in an argument? I’m going to tell you why it sucks.

What do people mean when they say not to quibble about semantics? Somewhat perversely, the best definition of the common use of “semantic quibbling” comes from, of all places, UrbanDictionary:

Often misused when quibbling about something someone said. In that context, the statement “That’s only semantics” would be more aptly phrased as “You’re just ‘splitting hairs on word meanings.”
Often used within the phrase “That’s only semantics”:
– as a blanket repudiation of precise communication.

– by persons advocating ‘subjective feelings’ over ‘objective description’ as a mainstay of communication.

The very concept of semantics is frequently disparaged by wishy-washy passive-aggressives who refuse to be accountable for their careless use of language or their deplorable lack of education.

Damn UrbanDictionary, you precise! Of course, below, it says this:

A stupid part of the english language in which people actually argue the meaning of words. As if I want to argue with you about what the damn word means to you. Go fuck yourselves you self absorbed bastards

Okay, never mind. That first guy on UrbanDictionary is precise. The second guy has no idea what it means to mean something, which is a state of affairs so bad, it’s not even wrong.

The only reason a word means something to anyone is because it means more or less the same thing to everyone who uses it. We have a term for things in which the same word signifies drastically unconnected things to different people: foreign languages. That’s why “Rat” means “council” in German.

Let me quibble about the semantics of quibbling about semantics for a minute. “Quibble,” since the 1610s, has been a cute term for “pun, play on words” with the dismissive association of a flimsy argument not worth considering. Semantics is the study of meaning, ultimately from the Greek semainein, to show or signify. So when you say “don’t quibble about semantics,” what you’re saying is “don’t bother me about what things mean.” Yeah, let’s not worry about what things mean, that’ll improve communication!

Increasingly, it seems it’s only semantic quibbling when you don’t like who’s doing it. There are times when the “quibble” is just an evasive tactic (President Bill Clinton’s “that depends what the definition of ‘is’ is” comes to mind), but when you’re arguing in areas that require precise definitions of actual, weighty terms, you damn well better quibble about the semantics of those terms before you even begin to debate. Not doing so makes argument impossible.

Let’s say you’re arguing about the existence of god, and one person defines “god” as “supernatural intelligent deity” and the other is using the definition of “life force.” Quibble! You’re going to be talking past each other otherwise.

Semantic quibbling is in the news now, with the NSA data-collection scandal:

[NSA director James Clapper said:] To me, collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it … And this has to do with of course somewhat of a semantic, perhaps some would say too – too cute by half [definition]. But it is – there are honest differences on the semantics of what, when someone says ‘collection’ to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to [Sen. Wyden]

Is it not “collection” when the data is in electronic form? The answer may determine the fate of privacy in the information age. Tell me that’s not an important distinction to be made. Go on.

What if you’re debating a social issue that becomes deeply personal for one or more of the disputants, say, racism, or rape? You remember the Steubenville, Ohio case where people defending the perpetrators tried to say it wasn’t rape if the victim is drunk, and then people with brains were all “Hey fuck you it is so rape!”? The semantic argument shapes legislation, determines future policy, and affects the real lives of real people. If a crime is to be defined one way as opposed to another, the entire argument is semantic.

“Don’t quibble over semantics” is just a lazy person’s way of shutting down the argument. In many ways, any argument is semantic: two people disagree about the meaning of a proposition, whether in a broader context or just about the meaning itself. Each tries to convince the other to reach into their semantic bag an adopt their meaning and what it entails. Claiming to be concerned about higher things than mere “semantics” is a thought-terminating cliché people use when they get caught in a bad argument or are afraid of a little contention. Don’t give me that crap.

About nkrishna

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One Response to In Defense of Semantic Quibbling

  1. Pingback: The Language of Science: it’s OK to be prescriptivist | Hapax Legomenon

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