Friday, July 24, 2009

Anonymous Guest Post on Language and Terminology

A My Face Is on Fire reader sent me an email yesterday to comment on the discussions that have been going on pertaining to language and the attempts to co-opt and water down or redefine terms. He said that he didn't know where to stick it in comments to other posts and gave me his permission to just post it outright. I'm going to do that and refrain from commenting. I think that it's worth a read (although I really don't think that I'm as much of a pain in the ass as he states).


I spent many years working as a technical publications writer and manager and, after a career change, attended graduate school to become a professional librarian in academia. One of the challenges of writing, editing, indexing, publishing, classifying, abstracting, and archiving any document is description – what is a document about, what is the document’s subject coverage. And a critical part of any successful description effort is controlling the vocabulary. In information science, this comes under the heading of Authority Control. In short, that means consistently using the same word or phrase, spelled the same way, to mean the same concept. Other terms may be narrower, broader, synonymous, closely related, or deprecated, and authority control is how information professionals define and regulate the specific usage of terms and their relationships to each other.

When attempting to find a document and retrieve it by subject or concept, you would want the person who described the document to be precise and accurate in their use of terminology. Similarly, you would also want the same level of attention to detail from the person who wrote the index for the document. Respectively, the words they chose are the proxies for the whole document and the concepts found within. Vocabulary matters.

Vocabulary has both denotation and connotation and influences your cognitive maps. And by extension, your world view. In her blog, Mylène has addressed this area of concern over and over again. So, who controls the words and their meanings? Who has authority control? Unfortunately, to our everlasting annoyance, us information professionals’ work is very much ex post facto. We describe what is, not drive what will be. So, no matter how amazingly precise and accurate our use of terminology is, we can only ever be descriptive, never prescriptive.

To illustrate my point, I present some quick thought exercises:

Which is the correct usage: Black, Negro, Colored, African-American, or African American?

Which is the correct abbreviation for electronic mail?

What exactly is the distinction between twitter and tweet?

You can choose the word and spelling and meaning you think is most correct, but who is the final authority: a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a writing style guide, a glossary? Okay, but what source of authority did the writers of those documents use then? Anyone can invent a term or appropriate an existing one to mean something new or different. Thought leaders, like Gary Francione for example, develop a new term and concept, or may appropriate one, to articulate a new and different way to view the world. However, it does not get into a recognized authority as such until someone decides there is a wide community or societal consensus on the usage of that term. For example, somebody decided at the New York Times what term and usage was the correct one for United States citizens of African continental ancestry. Actually, the NYT has made that choice more than once, as their interpretation of the correct term and usage has changed many times in the history of the publication. Often, this was ahead of such changes in most other publications, including dictionaries and encyclopedias. Where the NYT has led, many publications followed – the NYT became an authority for other publications. You get the idea.

So, back to Mylène, her blog, and her crusade for authority control. If an author gets a cookbook published with word the “vegan” in the title and the content of said cookbook is not vegan, then the term becomes diluted and the connotation shifts a little. If that happens enough times, the denotation of the term may eventually become essentially useless in common usage. Conversely, if the usage of the term “vegan” is consistent in publications, it can enter into, and maintain its integrity within, the common lexicon. At that point, the consensus will mob those who violate the integrity of the term. Until that happens, interested parties have to keep after authors and publications to meet a standard of integrity and to accept sometimes nascent authorities on terms and usage.

Be assured, that PR firms understand this dynamic intimately. The easiest way to disrupt this process is to corrupt the authority source that everyone accepts. Control the vocabulary, control the meaning.

And that, whether she knows it or not, is why Mylène is such a pain in the ass to authors and publications that don’t bother to do their homework, or have been co-opted, and end up releasing sloppy, slovenly and/or skewed words to the public that misrepresent the form and function of vegan abolitionism. Mylène is a mob of one, and I look forward to the day when she can retire from the authority control business and hand the effort over to librarians and info geeks like me, who select, categorize, classify, and compartmentalize so that the public can quickly and effectively find the high-quality information that they want by looking up words and concepts that say what they mean and mean what they say.


Luella said...

What is going to happen if we change "owner" to "guardian" on the law books while retaining the meaning of "owner" in practice?

Chandelle said...

I, for one, very much appreciate that you are such a hard-ass about the term "vegan," because it's caused me to be more responsible in my use of the term and also to push others to do so (although, I admit, I still struggle with the honey issue). Unfortunately, when I do call for strict use of the label, I'm usually somewhat dumped on for being exclusionary and demeaning, as I was here:

It's still very worthwhile to push for it, and this guest post illustrates why.

Chandelle said...

(Just to clarify, that link refers to a friend's post - my debate is in the comments.)

tru said...

I kind of don't get this guy's point.

He's saying his job is descriptive, not prescriptive ... but wants you to stop working to protect the definitions of vegan and abolition?

Why? So the words can rest wherever someone else wants to push them and he can get on with his job?

And for the record, I've had more than one discussion on the proper use of the term vegan ... so I don't think the "mob of one" description is apt. I'm not much of an activist, either.

M said...

Luella, I just checked out that link. With regards to the recent trend in designating people who live with nonhuman companions as their guardians instead of their owners, I'd have to say that all it seems to do is reinforces the speciesism inherent in the distinction people make between nonhumans they call 'food' and nonhumans they call 'family'. I don't think that it's a step forward; it just seems to be another take on the status quo.

gfrancione said...

Dear Luella:

You ask:

What is going to happen if we change "owner" to "guardian" on the law books while retaining the meaning of "owner" in practice?

Answer: Nothing. Nothing at all.

They are property or they are not property. Whatever else you call them is completely irrelevant.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

M said...

Chandelle, I think that this site will help clarify for you that honey isn't vegan.

tru: I think that you may have misinterpreted what the writer was saying. He meant that he wishes there wouldn't be a need to fight against the watering down or co-opting of terms; he wasn't expressing that he wishes I'd simply knock it off. I also think that by calling me a "mob of one", he was just completely overstating my significance, and not trying to imply that nobody else is concerned about or bother to debate the importance of the proper usage of terms like 'vegan' or 'abolitionist'. At least, that's what he conveyed to me in the note preceding that text.

tru said...

Ah. I read him as much more combative then ... my apologies to the Anonymous one. Thanks for clarifying.

M said...

I had to give it a second read, too.