On Discourse

By Razib Khan | March 22, 2013 1:13 pm

The word “discourse” is used a lot now. I’ve seen it even bleeding out of academic discourse, to general interest news. So I thought I’d look at the comparison between it an a few other terms in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which surveys mentions in books. The results were mildly interesting.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Words
  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    As in: “if we could get a genuine discourse between parties then everyone would realize I’m right.”
    Speaking of discourse, it seems there is a distinct lack of it in the comments here lately. All y’all lurking professionals need to make a Disqus account and stop Bogarting all that stuff you know. Drop knowledge, yo.

  • http://slartibartfastibast.tumblr.com/ slartibartfastibast

    Euphemism treadmill https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphemism#Euphemism_treadmill

    “Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process described by W.V.O. Quine, and more recently dubbed the “euphemism treadmill” by Steven Pinker, discussed in his The Blank Slate (2003) and The Stuff of Thought (2007). This is the well-known linguistic process known as pejoration or semantic change.

    Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents. In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms. Euphemisms related to disabilities [(e.g. "Idiot", "Moron", "Retarded", etc.)] have been prone to this.”

    • razibkhan

      why is that relevant? what is discourse a euphemism for? clarify.

      • http://slartibartfastibast.tumblr.com/ slartibartfastibast

        “I’ve seen it even bleeding out of academic discourse, to general interest news”

        I figured that was the first step in becoming a less distinct word (many pejoratives fall under that category).

        • razibkhan

          it’s not a pejorative. it’s just a pretentious way to say discussion. more curiously, it was more commonly used than discussion in the early 19th century.

          • http://slartibartfastibast.tumblr.com/ slartibartfastibast

            “it’s not a pejorative. it’s just a pretentious way to say discussion.”

            I’m speculating that similar tendencies (linguistic precession away from official stuff) might exist for the two groups of words.

          • razibkhan

            the pejorative aspect isn’t just drift. there are strong selective pressures at work i think that results in the turnover. OTOH, not sure about discourse/discussion. seems like pretension is a weaker force….

          • http://slartibartfastibast.tumblr.com/ slartibartfastibast

            Maybe “shift” would have been a better word to use there. There are definitely selection pressures at work with pejoratives, I think pretension might be more strongly selected against/for in different parts of the social and geographic landscapes.

          • razibkhan

            agreed. going to starbucks used to be a class signal (or aspiration to class). no longer.

          • Sandgroper

            Yeah. My observation here is that 5 years ago, Starbucks was the place to be seen. Now, if Starbucks is full, they’re all full.

            It reminds me of a story my former English boss told me about trying to get a plane ticket somewhere in America before the 1991 collapse of Pan Am. He went to a ticketing agent, only to be told the flight he wanted was full. He said “What about other airlines?” Agent: “If Pan Am is full, they’re all full.”

            Starbucks hasn’t had a Lockerbie Disaster, but it did have the infamous cochineal revelation here, which seems to have been pivotal (kind of ironic among the Cantonese, about whom it is alleged that if its back points to the sky, they’ll eat it + traditional Chinese medicine often contains stuff like dried cicadas). Jeez people are touchy – even as a little kid, I knew I was swallowing insect extract.

          • Sandgroper

            I reckon I could just about write a quite diverting/amusing paper on wine and coffee culture here and how ‘cool’ can suddenly switch to ‘uncool’, triggered by the seemingly trivial, but no doubt umpteen people have beaten me to it elsewhere. It can be a dangerous playing field for franchisees.

            OTOH, Pan Am’s problems were obviously not trivial.

  • Festivite

    “it’s just a pretentious way to say discussion.”

    Like “impact” in place of “affect”: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=impact%2C+affect&year_start=1920&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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