Linguification: That’s the Name of the Game

Narendra Modi, peripatetic prime minister of India

The term linguification originated on Language Log in 2006. I coined it to denote a peculiar kind of rhetorical device: People saying things like “The words ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are always found together” to mean “The concepts X and Y are related,” or (to cite a recent headline on Quartz India) this sort of thing:

Three continents in 140 hours — Narendra Modi shows he doesn’t know the meaning of “jet lag”

Does Modi’s itinerary really show that? Of course not. It shows, maybe, that he doesn’t suffer from jet lag, or can fight its effects with caffeine and Ambien and catnaps, but those are very different claims.

Why would anyone writing a headline take a claim about some topic X and substitute a statement that has nothing to do with X at all, but instead talks about the words or phrases used to refer to X — a different claim, with a different truth value?

There was much disagreement in Language Log comments and in emails I received. Many discussants rejected my rhetorical diagnosis.

Oh, don’t you see, it’s humorous, people would tell me, as if I were some humorless clod. No, it isn’t humor: there’s nothing remotely amusing about a statement like The Prime Minister of India doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase ‘jet lag.’  Try it at a dinner party and see if it provokes gales of laughter. It won’t. Trust me. I know jokes.

Oh, don’t you see, it’s hyperbole, a deliberate exaggeration for effect, people said authoritatively and erroneously, about a million times. No, it isn’t. A hyperbolic remark makes a stronger claim than the original, so if the hyperbole were true, the unlinguified statement would be true a fortiori. A linguification makes an unrelated claim which, if true, would have no implications for the claim it is pointlessly substituted for.

So when someone says There were millions of people at the MLA meeting, meaning that attendance at the meeting was high and included thousands of people they didn’t know, that’s hyperbole, and if it had really been true that there were millions of attendees, then necessarily there would have been thousands. The exaggeration entails the original. But saying Modi is ignorant of the meaning of a certain word, even if true, doesn’t bear any semantic relation to the claim that he can fly from New Delhi to Afghanistan, Qatar, Switzerland, the U.S.A., Mexico, and back to India without having disrupted sleep patterns.

Oh, don’t you see, it’s metaphor, people told me, as if I were a 7-year-old child. No, it isn’t (as I tried to explain why toward the end of this post). Metaphors involve structurally analogous statements about different domains as a way of getting across a message more quickly and vividly. Saying The referees tore my paper into shreds may be literally false, but metaphorically it trades on a structural analogy between shredding of a physical object and destruction of an argument, and thus gets across viscerally, almost visually, the idea of the destructive fury of the referee reports. Linguification doesn’t increase vividness and speed up processing like that; it attenuates the picture and slows down the processing. There is no structural analogy between ignorance of the meaning of a word and possession of stamina or resistance to disorientation.

The objectors are wrong in their determined resistance to my observations about linguification. I see this annoying and apparently pointless verbal trope as clearly linked to (1) the way everyone assumes claims about language don’t need to be empirically checked, and (2) the familiar but mythical connection between the words people have and the things those words stand for (lots of snow in the Arctic, hence lots of words for snow in Eskimoan languages, and similar nonsense).

Linguification is a deeply silly figure of speech, and it irritates me. I have no idea why journalists love it so much. Douglas Adams was one person who understood its silliness. He had his character Dirk Gently say: “The word ‘impossible’ is not in my dictionary. In fact, everything from ‘herring’ to ‘marmalade’ seems to be missing.”

I know the commenters below will disagree with me, but I don’t care. I won’t be cowed. The verb cow has no past participle in my language.

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