Humpty Dumpty Words

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

It may be just me becoming a bit of a grouch, but I’m becoming increasingly irritated with the practice of subverting words in public discourse to disparage something or someone that the speaker doesn’t approve of, or elevate something that they do. BBC commentators are particularly adept at it, but the print media and the blogosphere are just as guilty. And of course vested interests latch on and exploit it like anything.

Listen to any discussion of religion on the radio. You’ll find the most glorious mix up between “religion”, “faith”, “belief”, “Church” (as in the organisation, not the building), and “theology”. It’s as if they were synonyms. Even clerics, who should know better, are subject to it. Muddled words lead to muddled thinking, which is, I suppose, the aim.

Science is another area of deliberate confusion. Once upon a time we could all conveniently ignore such a subject. It wasn’t quite nice, in the sense that well-educated and well brought up people shouldn’t really know anything about it. It was all a bit below the salt.

But now so much science is politicised, especially climatology and medicine, and their associated technologies. Once upon a time a pseudo-scientific claim based on sloppy argument and wild surmise would have been described as “anecdotal”. This has transmuted through “anecdotal evidence” to “evidence based”. Claiming that your expensive but useless cancer treatment is “evidence based” sounds a lot better than saying that it’s mere quackery. The term is also widely used to support post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments.

I’ve been very fascinated by the developing debate about schools and schooling. But of course it isn’t called that. It’s about “education”. We’ve been gulled into thinking that teaching = education for children, and training = education for young adults. But, after all, education is a high-minded sort of word, so what’s not to like? The answer is that it blurs the arguments quite horribly.

In fact, teaching is a subset of education. As a parent, I’m responsible for my children’s education. Traditionally, the knowledge transfer parts of that have been contracted out, whether to a tutor, a governess, or a school. (Note, knowledge not facts – my middle name’s not Gradgrind.)

Of course, I can also entrust some of the transfer of wisdom to third parties too. I might not feel confident to tell my children about the complexities of human relationships. So “sex education” in schools was welcomed by many an embarrassed parent. But notice the difference between “education” and “teaching” which is here a genuine one. I can comfortably if clunkily, say, “Little Mary is having history teaching and sex education at school today”, whereas “Little Mary is having history education and sex teaching at school today” conjures up a frightful vision of propaganda and paedophilia.

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