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Semiformalishmaybe

Terminological Aesthetics

Staying on my kick of possibly-contentious topics in philosophy:I was enjoying today's (rerun) BasicInstructions, which has, among other elements of the humour, a nice little jab at efforts to revise the name "Indians" to "Native Americans". I remembered that my thoughts on the topic are kind of complicated and probably a bit muddled. Trying to work that out:

I seem to take delight in jabs at efforts to call them Native Americans, yet I am easily incensed by use of the phrase "gay" as a generic term for bad (just as I am when I hear "jap" or "jew" used in the same way). Why?

I suspect part of it is that I don't see any malice or accidental accumulation of illwill from the term Indian used in that way; it's wrong, but not actually harmful (except in the sense that some people believe that groups have the right to decide how others name and think of them; I've never believed that, hence my conclusion that it is a legitimate-but-uninteresting-question-of-terms whether Mormons should be considered Christian). I don't think this is all there is to it though, because the name "Native Americans" actually makes me a bit grumbly.

Maybe it's that it's a bad name. A lot of the time, people come up with utterly unnatural ways to name things when they decide they need a new name. Sometimes they do a unique synthesis from greek or latin, which can be interesting, but a lot of the more latin phrases we use nowadays "get a pass" in modern English because of long-use, not because we're actually keen to use latin. I don't have any negative emotional reation to the phrase Inuit (and I've stopped using "Eskimo" entirely; yes I do know that the range-of-the-terms don't quite overlap, but still). I tend to get a bit grumbly over new latin syntheses. I get more grumbly over awkward phrases. This is why I don't like "GNU/Linux" and am grumbly at RMS over that. I think it's kind of pushy to ever decide how others should speak about things, and "GNU/Linux" is just a bad, compound name. On the original topic, I note that I do not actually say "Indians" to refer to them; I say "AmerIndians", because it flows better than "American Indians" and because I don't like the confusion between Indians-from-India and Indians-from-the-American-continent. It strikes me as a reasonable position given two ugly alternatives.

Maybe it's just that I didn't grow up with it. I don't like changing my language too much for simple things. I might hold in my head a bunch of philosophical variants on the same term (e.g. virtue), and sometimes I might accept variant terms for specific variants (Machiavelli's virtu is an example). For non-philosophical terms, I am more reluctant to change how I speak because I don't like changing my speech habits; it makes my speech less natural (I already have to work reasonably hard to make sure the tangle of languages and language-grammars in my head come out as reasonably standard English in my writing and speech). I don't want a higher cognitive load.

Maybe there's a bar to meet. If the old phrase is adequate, I probably want to keep using it. If there's a good reason to change it combined with a good substitute word, I'll consider switching over. If I don't switch over, I'm still comfortable with the next generations doing so; I won't be around forever, and I don't want to keep changing terms around to make other people comfortable/happy over the course of my life; I might be willing, but I don't do that lightly. Also, and this ties into my notion of being a philosopher:

  • I must be convinced to do it. If someone tries to bully or shun or nag me into doing it, I will probably put on my stubborn hat and be a lot less willing to change. This is because I think it is a terrible thing to organise our mind or language or mental frameworks to make others happy/comfortable (for the sake of one discussion, I am often willing to do so; I'm talking changing my *actual* versions of these things; the ones I use internally or will speak with outside of a time-limited context that dictates otherwise).
In the end, this comes down to weighing social ends against a variety of thresholds. I think that's okay. There are probably easier ways to think about language-disputes, and perhaps ones that are aiming to please more people, but neither has been what I'm aiming for in how I think.

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