Friday, October 05, 2007

Problematising Problematic

About a month ago, Russel Smith, writing in the Globe & Mail, discussed a tendency for the meaning of technical terms, such as price point and deconstruct, to drift as the words become mainstream.

"It's inevitable that technical words and phrases will be imported into everyday language from specialized jargons. It's also inevitable that those terms will then change their meanings slightly. They usually lose some of their specificity, a bit of their subtlety, and become synonymous with some other everyday term."

I think he overstates the case here, but still, there is a case to be made. And notice how the paragraph above is simply descriptive, rather than evaluative. Perhaps his time at And Sometimes Y has relieved Smith of some of his more prescriptive tendencies, though, making it clear that he hasn't entirely shuffled off the curmudgeon's burden, he writes, "My favourite example of a corrupted technical term has to be 'deconstruct'." He explains the Derrida's use of the word like this:

"The aim of the reading was to show how the text's meaning is elusive, how it contradicts itself. It's part of a larger view of language as something essentially problematic. In other words, it hardly means an elucidation, as we use it so casually to mean now, but almost the opposite"

Still, Smith remains admirably neutral throughout. And the changes that he describes actually seem to be supported by evidence.

Ironic, then, that he is taken to task in a letter that appeared a few days later:

Posted on 08/09/07

Problematic problem

Kimberley, Ont. -- It is striking that in discussing the demotic use of jargon (Technical Terms And Mainstream Meanings - Review, Sept. 6), Russell Smith employs "problematic" in just such a manner. Having originated in the field of logic, the word means doubtful or questionable and has only recently come to be used in describing something that poses a problem. That Mr. Smith is, surprisingly for him, unaware of this history may be a problem, but it is definitely not problematic.

Here, Ferguson indulges in a number of fallacies (but they're so fine, you see):

  1. language must not change, so the older meaning is the only true meaning

  2. language always moves from the erudite to the debauched, so the technical meaning must be older

  3. whatever I think a word means is what it means

If we consult the OED, we find that it lists more than one meaning for problematic. Yes, polysemy is alive and well. We also find that the term of art from logic dates from 1610, but the more general sense is attested from 1609. From this, it would be hard to argue that one preceded the other in English. Finally, the OED disagrees with Ferguson's definition, giving the following instead:

2. Logic. Of a proposition: that asserts that a state of affairs is possible rather than actual or necessary.

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