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June 2004 Archives

The body, especially joints: noop; uvula; popliteal; paxwax; blype; racklettes; anconeal; olecranon

The press reflects on Reagan: acolyte; talisman; nascent; hegemony; clerisy; reaganomics; fractious

Have You Ever Met People Like This? polymath (paradigm); mossback; mendicant; gamin (gamine); flaneur (flaneuse; flβnerie) (wastrel); latitudinarian; ergomaniac (ergophile); karoshi

Terms of Illogic: amphibology/amphiboly (delphic); equivocation; ad hominem argument; tu quoque; ipse dixit; post hoc; false dilemma; begging the question


The body, especially joints


Back in November I said, "I was amazed to learn, when researching this topic, how many different words name specific familiar parts of the body. Let's look at some of them, planning to revisit this topic from time to time."


That time has come. We'll focus particularly, though not exclusively, on the joints.


Several of these words are almost never used, but would be useful addition to the general lexicon. For example, wouldn't be good to have a word for the point of your elbow, so that you could say, "I banged my noop"?


noop – Scotch: the sharp point of the elbow

[I believe this word is used in the commercial versions of Balderdash and Trivial Pursuit. Now you can impress your friends!]


a'body has a conscience, though it may be ill wunnin at it. I think mine's as weel out o' the gate as maist folk's are; and yet it's just like the noop of my elbow, it whiles gets a bit dirl on a corner.
– Sir Walter Scott, The Heart Of Midlothian


uvula – the thing that hangs down from the back of the mouth (which children invariably think is a tonsil)

[an interesting derivation: diminutive of Latin uva cluster of grapes]


popliteal – pertaining to the hollow area at the back of the knee


Practically all uses are in the medical context. But I guaranty you will never forget the image in this non-medical example, in which a husband, to his wife's embarassment, is telling a story about her.


Mrs. Scott Peterson sits down on the commode, still naked and wet from the shower, and when she's done she reaches over and hits the commode's Flush mechanism, and in Mrs. Scott Peterson's wet slick condition, the incredible suction starts actually pulling her down through the seat's central hole, and apparently Mrs. Scott Peterson is just a bit to broad abeam to get sucked down all the way but rather sticks, wedged, halfway down in the seat's hole, and can't get out, and is of course stark naked, and starts screeching for help; and Scott Peterson and comes rushing in and sees what's happened to Mrs. Scott Peterson and tries to pull her out - her feet kicking pathetically and buttocks and popliteal purpling from the seat's adhesive pressure - but he can't pull her out, she's been wedged in too tight by the horrific suction.
– David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again : Essays and Arguments Tag: Author of Infinite Jest


We have two seriously obscure words today.


paxwax – the neck tendon (properly, the nuchal ligament)

This word may have led to something more familiar. It's been claimed that in 1740's Lancashire, paxwax meant "the neck tendon of a calf or lamb", and led to paddywack as "an ingestible ligament in meat". As in this old nursury rhyme:


This old man,
He plays one,
He plays knick knack on my thumb
With a knick knack paddy whack,
Give a dog a bone
This old man came rolling home.


blype – Scot. a thin skin or membrane, esp. a small piece of skin

Most sources, more limiting, specify "a piece of skin that peels off after a sunburn". English could use a word for that!


He taks a swirlie, auld moss-oak
For some black gruesome carlin;
An' loot a winze, an' drew a stroke,
Till skin in blypes cam haurlin
Aff 's nieves that night.
– Robert Burns, Halloween

[He takes a twisted, old moss-oak
For some black gruesome old woman;
And uttered a curse, and made a hit,
Till skin in shreds came hurling
Off his fists that night.]


racklettes – the skin's small, thin wrinkle-lines at a joint, as at the wrist


I've found this word only in one source so far. But as I age, and those wrinkles begin to develop at the shoulders, neck, and so on, I see how useful the word racklettes would be.


A (female) reader notes: I was especially pleased to learn the word racklettes, as I've been obsessed with elbow wrinkles lately, gratified that some part of my body seems to remain a little younger-looking than others my same age, which, as of Friday, is 39.


anconeal – relating to the elbow.

[This word also has some archituctural meanings, doubtless related, but I've not researched the connection: 1.the corner or quoin of a wall, cross-beam, or rafter. 2. a bracket supporting a cornice; a console. ('Quion' and 'console' seem worth defining, but we'll save that for a day when our message is less lenghty.)]


olecranon – "The large process on the upper end of the ulna that projects behind the elbow joint and forms the point of the elbow."

[Clear as mud, right? If this this means simply "the bump of the elbow", then I'll stick with noop for that purpose, thank you. Still, olecranon is a nice metaphor for that bump, since at root olecranon means 'the skull [cranium] of the elbow'.



The press reflects on Reagan

As the press reflects on Ronald Reagan and his legacy, we will present, in his memory, relevant words taken from those press reflections.


acolyte – a devoted follower or attendant (also, in church, one who assists the celebrant in the performance of liturgical rites)


Like all consequential Presidents, Mr. Reagan influenced a generation of followers in both political parties. In the GOP, his acolytes were the candidates who finally took Congress in 1994.
– Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2004


talisman – an object as a charm to avert evil or good fortune; figuratively, something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects

[Does the quotation below use this word incorrectly?]


In a recent history of the Republican Party, Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas rates Reagan as the most important president in terms of his influence over the party, but gives him a more mixed report as chief executive. "Reagan transformed the Republican Party into a conservative unit with a diminishing band of moderates on its fringes. ... Reagan thus serves as a talisman of what it means to be a Republican."
– David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, June 6, 2004


A reader notes: [Does the quotation below use this word incorrectly?] I think so; paradigm or archetype would seem a better fit (if you're in need of that sort of word).


Today's quotation gives us two words.


nascent – coming into existence, or having recently come into existence

[from root meaning "to be born", as "Mrs. Ellen Jones, nιe Smith"]


hegemony – preponderant influence or authority; leadership; domination (usu. applied to relation of a state to its neighbors or allies) [accent on either first or second syllable; the latter is more prevalent]


His rhetoric against nascent Middle Eastern terrorism notwithstanding, his administration undertook to supply arms and spare parts to Iran in an arms-for-hostages deal that seriously undermined his second term. His administration's resistance to federal hegemony in social issues led to significant retreats in Civil Rights.
– Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2004


A reader notes: It may be of interest that hegemony is derived from Hegemone, one of the early forms of goddess who became the Greek "Charites."


clerisy – the well-educated elite class; the intelligentsia


Instead of dreaming about creating an educated "clerisy" ... Mr. Reagan was a populist who argued that "Bedtime for Bonzo made more sense than what they were doing in Washington." His was the conservatism not of country clubs and boardrooms, but of talk radio, precinct meetings and tax revolts.
– John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2004


reaganomics– the economic policies of President Reagan, esp. those of promoting the unrestricted action of free-market forces in commerce and reducing the taxation of earnings from investment


"Reaganomics" is now a household word describing the policies that pulled the U.S. out of its 1970s funk and set it on its path to today's robust economic health.
– George Melloan, Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2004


fractious– 1. unruly; tending to make trouble 2. quarrelsome; irritable


Patiently good-humoured, he proved to be superbly gifted for the fractious processes of labour negotiation, and was active in the union for 15 years.
– Hugh Brogan, The Guardian, June 7, 2004



Have You Ever Met People Like This?


Have you met people of the sorts we'll name or describe this week?


polymath– a person of great or varied learning


He seems a paradigmatic figure of the new science, and not just because frustration comes more often than triumph. He was the ultimate polymath when "natural philosophers" had not yet begun to specialize. The great chemist Robert Boyle, his employer, was famed as a moralist; Christopher Wren was better known to colleagues as an astronomer than an architect, and Newton won renown for his optics as well as for his gravitational theories and the calculus. But the diversity of Hooke's record trumped them all.
– Derek Hirst, reviewing Lisa Jardie's biography of Robert Hooke, in The New York Times. Excellent article, as published in International Herald Tribune, June 1, 2004


Bonus word:

paradigm – something that serves as a model, example, or pattern

Per AHD, 'paradigm' is also used to mean 'the prevailing view of things', but the experts are evenly split over whether that use is approved. Example: The paradigm governing international competition and competitiveness has shifted dramatically.


mossback – a very old-fashioned person, one with ancient views or thinking; an old fogy


He had just one strategy – attack, attack, attack, carry the fight to the enemy's camp. He hammered the Republicans relentlessly, in speeches. The 80th Congress, he said at Reno, Nevada, was run by a "bunch of old mossbacks still living back in 1890." The country must not go backward, he would keep saying over and over...
– David McCullough, Truman

Churchill in 1912 set out to reform the Royal Navy. He eliminated the dreadnoughts and replaced them with more mobile battleships. Then he sent into early retirement many mossback admirals.
– James C. Humes, The Wit & Wisdom of Winston Churchill


mendicant – a beggar adj: begging for a living

[The word is also used for religious orders that at one time so supported themselves. It is most often found in a religious concext.]


A mendicant at a mosque in Ennore paid with his life for making an indecent proposal to another comrade-at-alms, who, nursing a grudge over the beggar-friend's amorous interest towards his wife, invited him home for a drink and slashed his throat with a knife.
– News Today, India, May 25, 2004 (nice pun there)

The real lesson for South Australia ... is that it needs to shake off the culture of the mendicant state, dependent on uneconomic, sheltered industries and large handouts from the taxpayers.
– Alan Wood, Car market overheats, The Australian, May 25, 2004

Odysseus came through his own doorway as a mendicant, humped like a bundle of rags over his stick.
– The Odyessy, Bk. XVII (Fitzgerald translation)


Gamin has two different meanings depending on whether it is used for a male or a female. Gamine, which has two related meanings, is exclusively female.


gamin (male) – boy who hangs around on the streets; a street urchin.

The word carries the implication of a clever, roguish child.


What boy well raised can compare with your street gamin who has the knowledge and shrewdness of a grown-up broker.
– Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915), American author/publisher. Hubbard wrote "A Message to Garcia" (1899). He died on the ship Lusitania when it was sunk by a German submarine.


Gamine, the feminine form, has a second meaning not pertaing to the streets:

gamine (female) –

1. feminine form of gamin above

2. a playfully mischievous girl or woman of impish appeal. (One source adds that she "is thin, short-haired and attractively like a young boy in appearance: Her newly cropped hair gives her a fashionably gamine look")


Coming full circle:

gamin (female) - a gamine in the second, impish sense.

Most dictionaries omit this female meaning of gamin, but examples in use are not hard to find. I give but one – reluctantly omitting more from The Happy Hooker, Valley of the Dolls, and Robert Ludlum novels – and have put a long one below.


Kate was so beautiful, with the gamin quality of a Meg Ryan or Goldie Hawn, a perky, carefree perfection that Charlie greatly envied.
– Shirley Rousseau Murphy, Cat Fear No Evil


I hope you enjoy the next quotation enough to warrant its length.  It as from the first salvo of the 1952 advertising campaign for Revlon's Fire and Ice Cosmetics, which was called the most memorable of Revlon's promotions and the one which has made a permanent impression on the cosmetics business.


What is the American girl made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice? Not since the days of the Gibson Girl! There's a new American beauty . . . .  She's tease and temptress, siren and gamin, dynamic and demure. Men find her slightly, delightfully baffling. Sometimes a little maddening. Yet they admit she's easily the most exciting woman in all the world! She's the 1952 American beauty with a foolproof formula for melting a male! She's the "Fire and Ice" girl. (Are you?)


Have you ever danced with your shoes off?

Do you ever wish on a new moon?

Do you blush when you find yourself flirting?

When a recipe calls for one dash of bitters, do you think it's better with two?

Do you secretly hope the next man you meet will be a psychiatrist?

Do you sometimes feel that other women resent you?

Have you ever wanted to wear an ankle bracelet?

Do sables excite you, even on other women?

Do you face crowded parties with panic – then wind up having a wonderful time?

Does gypsy music make you sad?

Do you think any man really understands you?

Would you streak your hair with platinum without telling your husband?

If tourist flights were running would you take a trip to Mars?

Do you close your eyes when you're kissed?


Can you honestly answer "yes" to at least eight of these questions? Then you're made for "Fire and Ice"!



It's Father's Day, a time when all fathers may indulge in a bit of innocent flβnerie.


flaneur (fem. flaneuse) - an aimless idler; a loafer

[implies, but not limited to, idle strolling. from F. flβner, to idle about, stroll]

(flβnerie: the occupation [or lack thereof])


There is a titanic story beneath all this, where the aspirations of postindependence African nationalism are sidetracked by personal hubris and competing notions of art and culture. Masekela cannot fully tell it. But he lived it, almost as a flaneur, and it keeps the story of a wastrel somehow emblematic
– Eric Weisbard, New York Times, June 11, 2004, reviewing Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela by Hugh Masekela and D. Michael Cheers

Perhaps you are a naturally slothful person, sluggish and indolent, a dawdling flaneur, content to waste his life spread eagled on pillows forever indulging himself in the pleasures of the palm.
– Episode of The League of Gentlemen, broadcast 25 Jan 1999; titled Nightmare in Royston Vasey


Note: flaneur is a pejorative term, but (despite this quote) not a sexual one.


Bonus word:

wastrel - 1. a spendthrift; one who squanders money 2. An idler; a loafer; a good-for-nothing


latitudinarian – adj: broadminded; permissive; undogmatic noun: a person of such attitude.

[pertains particularly to religious matters, but not always. see quotes below]


Holmes was exacting in construing a statute and latitudinarian in construing powers under the Constitution. He often said that there was nothing in the Constitution that prevented the country from going to hell if it chose to.
– Max Lerner, The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes (1954)

[On U.S. senators of adjacent states, each claiming their own state originated baseball: ] [Senator] Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey wants June 19 declared "National Baseball Day." His resolution originally was supported by New York's Pat Moynihan, who at that point was somewhat of a latitudinarian regarding baseball's provenance. Moynihan has since defected to the D'Amato insurgency."
– George Will, Hard Feelings along the Lower Hudson River, June 2, 1996, in his book Bunts

Mr. Newdow seeks through this lawsuit to force all public schools to banish any statement that might be construed as a reference to religious values, no mater how benign, latitudinarian, or important that expression may be to the inculcation of civic virtue.
– Brief to U.S. Supreme Court, in case on whether school may require children to recite a daily pledge that includes reference to "God" (2003)


Here are three gradations of the antonym of our flβnerie of Father's Day.


ergophile – one who loves work


ergomaniac – a workaholic


karoshi – death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.

[This is a Japanese term, but it is coming into English and is now listed in OED. Karoshi is a major cause of death in Japan.]



Terms of Illogic

A few months ago we did a theme on Terms of Logic. As a natural counterpart, let's look at terms of illogic.


amphibology; amphiboly – an ambiguity which results from ambiguous grammar


An amphibology is often so obvious that it humorous rather than misleading. "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." – Groucho Marx, in the movie Animal Crackers)


But the ambiguity can mislead the hearer to an illogical conclusion. When King Croesus consulted the Oracle at Delphi about his military plans, the response was, "If Croesus crosses the Halys, a great power will be destroyed." Croesus took this as predicting victory for him. In the fact, when he crossed the River Halys into Persia, a great army was indeed destroyed; but unhappily for him, the army annihilated was his own.


The oracle gave us our bonus word:

delphic – obscurely prophetic; also, ambiguous; mysterious

A post on our board has asked, "Is amphibology [yesterday's word] usually an ambiguous statement because of grammar...or could it just be an ambigous statement?"


Technically, amphibology is an abiguity of grammar. In contrast,


equivocation – the type of ambiguity which occurs when a single word or phrase is ambiguous; this ambiguity is not grammatical but lexical. [Obviously, 'equivocation' has other and more familiar meanings.]


Equivocation, like amphibology, can often be humorous, as in the Who's on First comedy routine (text or hilarious audio), and it is often the basis of humorous headlines. Among the bloopers in Headlines That You Just Have to Hang On To, by Bob Levy of the Washington Post, you'll find such examples as


Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over."
"Key Witness Takes Fifth in Liquor Probe."
"Marijuana Issue Sent to Joint Committee."


But equivocation, like amphibology, can also mislead the hearer.


... humanity has a right not to be killed, at least. Without laying out all the evidence here, it is fair to conclude from medicine that the humanity of the life growing in a mother's womb is undeniable and, in itself, a powerful reason for treating the unborn with respect.
– Helen M. Alvarι, The Abortion Controversy (Greenhaven, 1995)


The equivocation lies between two meanings of "human": 1. a person as a whole ("human being"), which has a right not to be killed, and 2. a part of a person ("the human hand"), which though undeniably human has no such right. Alvarι is confuting the two senses. Her fallacy would be would be obvious if the passage read, "Humanity has a right not to be killed, and the humanity of the human hand is undeniable." Of course, Alvarι makes perfect sense if you assume that a fetus is a human being, but that would almost be assuming the desired conclusion.


[I thank The Fallacy Files for much of the matter in the last two days, and expect to use it further this week.]


argument ad hominem – countering an opponent's argument by attacking the opponent, rather than the argument he makes.

[In effect, an attempt to change the subject from the matter at hand, and focus instead on the opponent personally. This is a failure of logic, in that the validity of an argument does not depend on the person making it.]


An ad hominem argument may be either 'abusive' or 'circumstantial':


abusive ad hominem – attacking the opponent's character or other personal qualities:

"I once asked a long-haired maggot-infested FM-type environmentalist wacko who he thought was threatening the owl."  – Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought to Be


circumstantial ad hominem – attacking the opponent's personal circumstances:

"When Attorney General Lisa Madigan gave a legal opinion that the proposal would be unconstitutional, the Governor remarked that she did so because of her father's (the Speaker of the Illinois House, Michael Madigan) influence. [Governor] Blagojevich's comment was an unfair, ad hominem attack." – The Illinois Leader, June 8, 2004


Apparently John Locke coined the term 'ad hominem' (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690), and Schopenhauer was the first to distinguish the abusive fallacy from other forms (The Art of Controversy).


Some dictionaries have definitions which I suggest are incorrect:

M-W online: 1. appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect. [But "appeal to emotion" is a separate fallacy, and it need not be directed at the opponent personally. Conversely, an ad hominem argument focuses on the opponent but need not play upon emotions, although it of course often does so.]

same: 2. marked by an attack on an opponent's character. [But only the abusive form of 'ad hominem' deals with 'character'.]

AHD: appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic or reason. [That definition encompasses an appeal to interest, such as, "Support me, because I'll pay you for it." But the 'personal consideration' in an ad hominem are those of about opposing opponent, not those about the audience.]


tu quoque [Latin for "you too," or more loosely, "So's your old man."] – a retort charging an adversary with being or doing what he criticizes in others


In ad hominem argument the accused hurls a charge against his accuser. Tu quoque is a type of ad hominem, in which he hurls back the very charge of which he stands accused. Logically, this is irrelevant to whether the accused is himself guilty. But tu quoque can be very effective, by putting the accuser on the defensive.


"I say, what HAS happened since I saw you last, Sally?" Philip began.
"Nothing that I know of."
"I believe you've been putting on weight."
"I'm sure you haven't," she retorted. "You're a perfect skeleton."
Philip reddened.
"That's a tu quoque, Sally," cried her father. "You will be fined one golden hair of your head. Jane, fetch the shears."
"Well, he is thin, father," remonstrated Sally. "He's just skin and bone."
"That's not the question, child. He is at perfect liberty to be thin, but your obesity is contrary to decorum."
– W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage,, ch. CI


In a 1997 CNN interview, Osama Bin Laden was asked "Do you sponsor terrorism?" He gave a long response but you'll notice that he never addressed the question; he simply made that very same terrorism accusation against the US.  Tu quoque. (Full text here; appears about 40% of the way down in the full interview. )


REPORTER: Now, the United States government says that you are still funding military training camps here in Afganistan for militant, Islamic fighters and that you are a sponsor of international terrorism; but others describe you as the new hero of the Arab-Islamic world. Are these accusations true? How do you describe yourself?

he simply makes that very same accusation against the US.: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in which the U.S. has no mentionable role, but rather the credit goes to God, Praise and Glory be to Him, and the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, this collapse made the US more haughty and arrogant and it has started to look at itself as a Master of this world and established what it calls the new world order. It wanted to delude people that it can do whatever it wants, but it can't do this. It leveled against me and others as many accusations as it desired and wished. It is these (accusations) that you mentioned. The US today as a result of the arrogant atmosphere has set a double standard, calling whoever goes against its injustice a terrorist. It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose on us agents to rule us based not on what God has revealed and wants us to agree on all these. If we refuse to do so, it will say you are terrorists. With a simple look at the US behaviors, we find that it judges the behavior of the poor Palestinian children whose country was occupied: if they throw stones against the Israeli occupation, it says they are terrorists whereas when the Israeli pilots bombed the United Nations building in Qana, Lebanon while was full of children and women, the US stopped any plan to condemn Israel. At the time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his right, they receive the highest top official of the Irish Republican Army (Gerry Adams) at the White House as a political leader, while woe, all woe is the Muslims if they cry out for their rights. Wherever we look, we find the US as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world. The US does not consider it a terrorist act to throw atomic bombs at nations thousands of miles away, when it would not be possible for those bombs to hit military troops only. These bombs were rather thrown at entire nations, including women, children and elderly people and up to this day the traces of those bombs remain in Japan. The US does not consider it terrorism when hundreds of thousands of our sons and brothers in Iraq died for lack of food or medicine. So, there is no base for what the US says and this saying does not affect us, because we, by the grace of God, are dependent on Him, Praise and Glory be to Him, getting help from Him against the US. As for the last part of your question, we are fulfilling a duty which God, Praise and Glory be to Him, decreed for us. We look upon those heroes, those men who undertook to kill the American occupiers in Riyadh and Khobar (Dhahran). We describe those as heroes and describe them as men. They have pulled down the disgrace and submissiveness off the forehead of their nation. We ask Allah, Praise and Glory be to Him, to accept them as martyrs.


ipse dixit [typical use] – an unsupported dogmatic assertion

ipse dixit [broader usage] – argument from supposedly conclusive authority, rather than from reasoned evidence.

Also called appeal to authority or argumentum ad verecundiam.. May be used to prove [As in the old medieval view "Aristotle says" was conclusive proof] or to refute ["Eugenics? The Nazis were the first to practice eugenics."].


The broader concept is familiar to anyone who has heard a teenager say, "Janet's parents let her go to R-rated movies. Tim's parents let him go to R-rated movies; even Margaret is allowed to go to R-rated movies, and you know how strict her parents are! Why can't I go?" (Henriette A. Klauser, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain)


For the more typical usage, here are a recent example and an older one.


Judge have no special competence, qualifications, or mandate to decide between equally compelling moral claims (as in the abortion controversy) or equally compelling political clams (counting ballots by hand or stopping the recount because the standard is ambiguous. ... these are precisely the sorts of issues that should be left to the rough-and-tumble of politics rather than the ipse dixit of five justices.
– Alan M. Dershowitz, Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000

Judge Douglas recurs again, as he did upon one or two other occasions, to the enormity of Lincoln – insignificant individual like Lincoln – upon his ipse dixit charging a conspiracy upon a large number of members of Congress, the Supreme Court and two Presidents, to nationalize slavery. I want to say that, in the first place, I have made no charge of this sort upon my ipse dixit. I have only arrayed the evidence tending to prove it, and presented it to the understanding of others, saying what I think it proves, but giving you the means of judging whether it proves it or not. This is precisely what I have done. I have not placed it upon my ipse dixit at all.
– Abraham Lincoln, in debate with Steven Douglas (Second Debate, Freeport, Illinois), August 27 (28?), 1858


post hoc – the logical fallacy of concluding that if one thing happens after another, the first must is the cause of the second.

[Short for Latin post hoc, ergo propter hoc "After this, therefore because of this." The term is also used where one draws such a conclusion when two events coincide]


If A and B occur together, A might cause B. But perhaps B causes A; or they have a separate common cause; or they coincide by mere coincidence.


It is easy to find comic examples ("Wind is caused by the trees waving violently, stirring up the air"), but let's start with a serious one.


What might happen if an entire nation got a flu vaccine? By chance alone, tens of thousands of people would come down with some illness and some would die. After all, tens of thousands of people get sick and many die every day. But what would a jury say if confronted with a child who began having severe epileptic seizures within hours of being immunized against swine flu? How sympathetic might a jury be to a large company that argued that the epilepsy was coincidental when they saw the tearful parents?
       It was simply not worth taking the chance, the [vaccine] companies reasoned. [An independent authority's letter to the New York Times] explained that if Americans have flu shots in the numbers predicted, many as 2,300 will have strokes and 7,000 will have hearts attacks within two days of being immunized. "Why? Because that is the number statistically expected, flu shots or no flu shots," he wrote. "Yet can one expect a person who received a flu shot at noon and who that same night had a stroke not to associate somehow the two in his mind? Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It is one thing to see matters objectively in light of statistical expectations. It is quite another when it affects one personally. Who can blame someone for assuming the events are linked."
Gina Bari Kolata, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (Ch. 6: A Litigation Nightmare) quote simplified for brevity

post hoc, ergo propter hoc – Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by" (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sit, Archbishop of Manila: "I know of … a 26-year old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills."
– Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (Ch 12: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection)

"Near-perfect correlations exist between the death rate in Hyderabad, India, from 1911 to 1919, and variations in the membership of the International Association of Machinists during the same period. Nobody seriously believes that there is anything more than a coincidence in that odd and insignificant fact."
– David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (as quoted in Fallacy Files)


false dilemma – two alternatives set up as if they were the only options, when there are in fact middle-ground or other options. [also known as bifurcation, black-and-white fallacy, either/or fallacy] Pithy sloganeering often uses the false dilemma (e.g., "America: Love it or leave it"), ignoring possible middle grounds.


It's useful to contrast contrary with contradictory. If I say, "It's hot today," you contradict me if you simply deny, and say, "It's not hot" (one or the other of us is right). But to assert the contrary is to take the opposite position, "It's cold" (we each may be wrong). The "love it or leave it" slogan treats two contrary alternatives as if they were contradictory, with no other choice.


[Several] e-mail messages from readers asked: "Would you rather fight them over there or over here?" Whether they knew it or not, these readers were setting up what is known as a "false dilemma," providing a limited number of options (usually two), when there are actually more than that, in this case dozens, perhaps hundreds more. Another famous example of a false dilemma is President Bush's statement "You're either with us or with the terrorists." Again, many more possibilities exist here than the "either/or" option put forward by Bush.
– Bruce Mulkey, Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, June 11, 2004, whose very headline critiques a false dilemma, saying, "There is absolutely nothing patriotic about meekly going along with anything our president wants."


Wordcrafter notes:

- I'm not suggesting that "false dilemmas" come only or principally from only one side of the political aisle.

- Here is the full context of Bush's remark, beyond what Mulkey quotes: "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."


A half-decade of mounting political scandals have [sic] turned Connecticut into a punchline of political backwardness. ... said Gian-Carlo Peressutti, ... "It begs the question of why does a state that has so much wealth and intelligence and talent continue to produce public servants who continue to let those that they serve down. I think that's a fair question."
– Avi Salzman, The New York Times, June 27, 2004


Peressutti uses "beg the question" to mean "raises or leads inevitably to the question". That's the common usage but not the original meaning, and the authorities disagree over whether that newer usage is proper. The original meaning referred to a certain logical fallacy.


begging the question – argument by taking for granted, and uses as a premise, the very conclusion to be proved. [The Latin phrase is petitio principii, which I understand to mean 'pleading for the principle'. Can Latin scholars confirm or correct?] One web-author gives this example:


When a student accuses me of grading him unfairly because no matter how "excellent" his papers are, I never give them above a C, he is basing his argument that I grade unfairly on the unproven premise that his essays are excellent. (You'd be surprised at how often teachers hear just such arguments. On second thought, maybe you wouldn't be surprised at all.)


One can see how the phrases 'begging the question ' might be understood in the newer way. But why would the word 'begging' be used for this sort of logical fallacy? What do our readers think?


A reader notes: Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site has another of his excellent articles on this subject.