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Inventing new and useful words

2 October, 2015 - 10:02

If we are going to think productively about politics, we need an adequate vocabulary. Given the rapid changes in today's political situation and central issues, it is unlikely that a static political vocabulary can be an adequate one. We must therefore be sensitive to opportunities to develop new vocabulary when that will help us to think more effectively.

Imagine a citizen of ancient Greece, contemporary of Plato or Aristotle several hundred years B.C.E., before whom a modern multi-speed bicycle suddenly materialized out of a time-warp. This person lacks words such as chain, tire, derailleur, cable, brake, handlebar, axle, gear, pedal, you name it, and he also lacks the concepts or ideas to which these words now point. How well could this observer describe what he has seen to someone else? Lacking the above concepts, how well could he even perceive the bicycle himself?

The advantages and disadvantages of creating particular definitions can be evaluated using the various transformations of our standard model of rational decision and action, D\rightarrow X+Y: the act of defining a word in a certain way in pursuit of goal x also produces side effects Y. (See Concepts of Decision-Making and Action of this book.) There is one more issue, however, that needs to be considered, and this is whether the new definition should be attached to an existing word or to a new word coined expressly for this purpose.

No general answer can be given to this question, because either approach has both advantages and disadvantages, and the ratio between them in a particular case will depend on the circumstances. Much will depend on whether any existing words are close enough, in their common meaning, to the new definition to make them plausible pointers to it, on the one hand, and on how good a new word can be knocked together from meaningful roots, on the other hand.

We have seen examples of both approaches to new definitions in this short book. The word laws—defined herein as general rules of action enforceable by sanctions—is an old word with a new, precise meaning. The word coopetition—defined as conflict over how to divide up the benefits produced by cooperation—is a new word invented specially to use with the new definition.

The history of the term pseudolaws, incidentally, is an interesting example of the gyrations one may go through before settling down on the best word for expressing a given meaning. Originally, I had no special word for this meaning. I used the word law to refer to the meaning now expressed by pseudolaw, but held my nose with my fingers (as if there was a bad stink!) when I used the word law in this sense. This not only made clear the fact that I meant something other than law in its sense as a general rule of action, but it also expressed the disgust which I feel is appropriate when we encounter such things.

When I began to write down my thoughts, I originally put the world law in quotation marks, "law", to indicate that they were only so-called laws. During the pre-publication editing of my previous book, Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective, however, the publisher suggested that my distinction might escape the reader if I only used the quotation marks for this purpose. Instead, she proposed that I use the term quasi-laws.

It was clear that my editor was correct in her belief that something needed to be changed. But unfortunately there were two problems with the proposed term: First, quasi-did not have the needed negative connotation, the feeling that disgust is called for. Second, there was a danger of confusion with the concept of quasi-legislative powers as this expression is used to describe the work of administrative agencies. I did not want to confuse the origin of the rules with their nature.

However the editor's suggestion was helpful in that I immediately saw the possibility that her recommended prefix quasi-could be replaced by the alternative prefix pseudo-, thereby simultaneously solving both problems. There is no danger of confusing pseudolaws with the quasi-legislative powers of regulatory agencies. And pseudo-has an eminently satisfactory negative connotation. (Just try calling someone a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-athlete, or pseudo-anything and you will see what I mean!) Thus I finally arrived at the word pseudolaw, which appears to be completely suitable to its intended purpose.