When (often plausible) claims about substance get recast as (unsound) claims about language.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

More than a decade ago, linguist Geoff Pullum (Language Log) coined the terms "linguify" and "linguification":

To linguify a claim about things in the world is to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate.

His example:

A writer named Alexis Long apparently wanted to say that bisexuality was increasingly being seen by mainstream news media as fashionable. But what he actually wrote (in an Australian newsletter for bisexuals) was: "It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'."

Now here he recognized that the linguification was meant to be jocular—no-one really thinks that it's hard to find mainstream writing which uses "bisexual" without adding "chic." (I omit the possibility that the author meant "bisexual chick," a phrase that actually seems to have 8 times the Google hits of "bisexual chic.") But it occurs to me that the recent posts about the word "right" (inconceivable, superscript -1, rights vs. powers) as well as about "republic" and "democracy" are actually responses to serious examples of linguification:

  1. People have a plausible claim about a morally significant distinction or principle (e.g., that governmental claims of right are often importantly different from individual claims of right, or that negative rights are often importantly different from positive rights).
  2. But instead of casting these claims as moral, legal, or philosophical claims, or arguing about how certain terms should be defined, they cast those claims as claims about what the words actually mean. They set forth a definition of the word and claim that anyone who departs from the definition is actually misusing the word, or is a postmodernist, or is denying reality.
  3. And these linguified claims are provably wrong, if one understands English words as meaning what actual English speakers have long used them to mean, and if one understands American legal or political terms as meaning what actual American legal or political figures, speaking to the American public, have long used them to mean.
  4. Indeed, to accept those linguified claims, we have to conclude that the linguifiers actually are more authoritative explainers of American legal and political language than are Chief Justice Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, the drafters of the Articles of Confederation, and many more. And while we should always be open to the possibility that even an anonymous commenter has a better argument than Chief Justice Marshall, we should be skeptical of claims that an anonymous commenter is entitled to redefine a word in a way that makes Chief Justice Marshall's usage—together with the usage of many people both before and after—"wrong."

Just say no, friends, including friends from the libertarian and conservative movement (in many ways my ideological home, and yet the place where I have seen a disproportionate share of such linguification). Just say no to weakening your possibly valid substantive arguments by recasting then as patently invalid linguistic arguments. Explain what you think is normatively or legally right, and why you think it's right, without claiming authority over the definition of words, authority that you cannot possess.