Technical jargon bordering on a new dialect?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/03/27 14:40 -05:00, original URI:

Over at Language Log Plaza, Geoffrey K. Pullum was talking about Lexical Drift.

I tend to think of the specific issue he raises there:

Psychologist Alex Delaware and his best friend the gay detective Milo Sturgis are always having long and complex discussions about how much the current evidence favors this or that suspect. And Milo will often say, for example, "So, yaou like the husband now?" — meaning (and I have no idea how it was that I could see this instantly), "So, you now favor the hypothesis that the husband is the murderer that we seek?" The verb like has taken on a new sense where A likes B means "A favors the hypothesis that B is the culprit." See how that works? Maybe the new sense will catch on more widely, maybe it will be limited (or is limited) to police talk, maybe it will never spread much; we don't know, and we can't predict.

is actually more of a technical jargon thing that we accept in such situations, the same way we accept for example "The AIDS test was positive" to mean that the most negative of all possible results was returned.

Such usage (which we seem to accept without too much trouble) does not seem to affect our own usage in other places....

# Carlos on 27 Mar 2006 4:20 PM:

I think it's important to remember that jargon is invented as a short cut to keep conversations from getting bogged down.  If everyone involved in the conversation knows the jargon, it saves a lot of time and breath.

If the jargon is widely applicable, then it will crossover.  So, 'bandwith' is widely used outside it's original context, because there are lots of situations where something has a finite usable capacity, but 'positive' = 'bad' will probably stay in that particular context since it doesn't apply elsewhere.

In any case, this particular case isn't very much of an extension of 'like'.  For example, if you held auditions for a role in a play, you'd discuss the merits of the actors in terms of 'like' or 'don't like', as in "I like Bob for the butler, but I don't like Chuck."  The detective and his friend are discussing the merits of various suspects for the role of culprit, using the same kind of terms.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 27 Mar 2006 4:42 PM:

Hey Carlos,

I tend to agree. But notice how learning a particular usage does not really change the overall use of the same terms -- we do separate them quite naturally and for the most part unconsciously....

# Maurits [MSFT] on 27 Mar 2006 5:35 PM:

The English expression "well, I like that..." is another example.

# Marvin on 28 Mar 2006 1:30 AM:

It is not the verb "to like" that changed its meaning but the noun "husband". A likes B in this context means A likes "the hypothesis that B is the culprit". B = the hypothesis that B is the culprit.
This is much less exciting since nouns do this all the time. In this case all we have is a simple context-sensitive omission where the distinctive term in a long phrase is used to stand for the whole. After all the part "the hypothesis that ... is the culprit" is completely redundant in their conversation.
We resort to such omissions all the time when we want to avoid wasting words for some reason. In this case the reason is speed but there can be others. For example toddlers don't yet speak that well to afford any unnecessary words. Anybody who had a conversation with a toddler will instantly recognize the pattern ;-)

# Michael S. Kaplan on 28 Mar 2006 1:47 AM:

Hi Marvin,

I think that there is more to this. A positive term such as "like" in this context (i.e. suspected of being guilty of a crime) is not a moral inversion where being someone who fights crime means you like people to commit them.

Just as doctors are not looking for suffering, such that call a test positive when the actual meaning of the test indicating "passing" can mean something quite negative.

In the latter case the scientific basis is clearer -- the test is meant to see if a certain condition is true -- if it is, the test was positive. In the former case it is less rigorous, but I still think there is more involved....

# Marvin on 28 Mar 2006 2:08 AM:


Sorry, but I didn't quite understand your reply. What has moral to do with all this? "I like X" implies that I prefer X to some unspecified (but deducible from context) Y. "I like Coke" usually implies that I prefer drinking it to not drinking at all, drinking water, Pepsi or whatever. The exact meaning can only be known when you know the context (That's why despite all MS efforts we won't see reliable speech recognition in the near future).

Similarly "I like husband" here means that I prefer the hypotesis about husband to some other unspecified hypothesis.

If you want an analogy is a function which doesn't care what its argument is.

Your discomfort here stems from the fact that the context is unfamiliar to you. In absence of internalized context you resort to the general definitions of "like" (or "positive") and find the results puzzling.

# josh on 28 Mar 2006 2:15 AM:

I agree with Marvin.  "Like" usually means that the subject of the sentence is favored, and it still does here.  It's just not the literal subject as stated because of the extra implied part.

The use of "positive" reminds me of the curiousness of the verb "cleave," which can either mean "to hold together" or "to split apart."  But I think the awkwardness is more due to the attached emotional baggage that "positive" carries rather than the obscurity of its meaning.  (Look up definitions for it, you'll find few of them have good/bad connotations!)

Not to say this is completely wrong, just poor examples.  :)

# Michael S. Kaplan on 28 Mar 2006 3:01 AM:

Actually, I have a good understanding of both contexts, and use both of them. And it simply feels like I went through a bit more complicated process than is being implied here, that's all.

# Keith on 28 Mar 2006 9:31 AM:

The "test is positive" usage really refers to the fact that something which was being sought was found, and whether that result is "bad" or not depends very mcuh on the test and the circumstances.  For example, "The pregnancy test was positive" could be tremendously good, if you and your partner had been trying for a long time to have a child, or tremendously bad, if it relates to the status of your thirteen-year-old daughter. Context plays a very large role in how we interpret the words.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 28 Mar 2006 9:41 AM:

Hi Keith --

There is nothing quite like the pragmatic piece and its importance here. :-)

# Dean Harding on 28 Mar 2006 7:37 PM:

Heh, the "positive" bit reminds me of a sketch in Seinfeld where George had a white discolouration on his lip. He went to the doctor to get tested for cancer and when he was told the tests came back "negative" his immediate reaction was that he thought he had cancer... but then, maybe that's just George :-)

Please consider a donation to keep this archive running, maintained and free of advertising.
Donate €20 or more to receive an offline copy of the whole archive including all images.

go to newer or older post, or back to index or month or day