Expressive Vocabulary

post by Alicorn · 2018-05-24T06:59:58.072Z · score: 184 (75 votes) · LW · GW · 60 comments

Contents

  Some things I am not saying:
None
207 comments

"Thou shalt not strike terms from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement." - me


Suppose your friend says: "I don't buy that brand of dip. It's full of chemicals."

Reasonable answer: "I'm skeptical that any of them are harmful in these quantities; we don't have much reason to believe that."

Reasonable answer: "Yellow 5? Are you allergic?"

Reasonable answer: "Okay, let's get the kind with four easily recognizable ingredients."

No: "Technically, everything is chemicals. Dihydrogen monoxide!"

Pedantry is seldom a way to make friends and influence people, but this example particularly gets my goat because there doesn't seem to actually exist a word in English for the thing you know perfectly well people mean when they say "chemicals". When I tried to find one on Twitter, the closest options were "toxins" and "additives". But neither is right. "Toxins" excludes yellow 5 - or, whether it does or not might be a point of contention; but it isn't the thing originally expressed with the word "chemicals". People may want to avoid - or otherwise discuss - "chemicals" for reasons other than thinking they're literally toxic; if I tell a maid I'm sensitive to chemical smells but vinegar is okay this is useful information. "Additives" includes, say, added sugar, which, while a plausible complaint, is a separate complaint.


Suppose your grandma says, "Okay, no technology at the dinner table."

Reasonable answer: "I'll put the laptop away to make room for the potatoes, but I need the phone because I get anxious without it."

Reasonable answer: "Sure, Grandma."

Reasonable answer: "We can try that until Uncle Bill starts making easily falsified claims about Flat Earth."

No: "Technically, the dinner table is a technology. And so are your glasses, Grandma."

In this case a more precise word exists - "electronics" ambiguously includes the chandelier but at least firmly sets aside the question of whether your grandma wants you to eat naked and with your bare hands. But refusing to know what she meant because she could have gotten closer to saying it, not even literally (she isn't being metaphorical), but technically, pedantically, definitionally? This is both a bad social move and a bad epistemic one; you're having the conversation on a level that is wholly about verbal wallpaper. Do you prefer to say "electronics" or dip into synechdoche with "screens" or spend nine syllables on "internet enabled devices"? Are you actually unsure if your grandmother wants you to set aside your smart watch, dumb phone, or electric blanket of intermediate intellect? Use your own words, ask your own questions, but don't enforce an inadequate prescriptivism with feigned incomprehension while your interlocutor only wants you to pass the peas.


Thou shalt not strike terms from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement. It's a pet issue of mine; it's my pinned tweet. "Suitable replacement" means suitable across the board, Pareto improvement as seen by the user along every axis a word can have. I think people are within their rights to reject a proposed replacement for not meaning the right thing, sounding ugly, being one syllable longer, being hard to spell, not rhyming in a poem they're trying to write, and vague gut feeling that you're just trying to control them. I extend this as far as "gypsy" and "Eskimo", at least (and with slightly less fervor to a slur beyond that if you really don't have another term for Brazil nuts).

Suitable replacement is a very high standard. It has to be. If you take someone's words away - and refusing to understand them when the problem is not in fact in your understanding does that, since words are tools to communicate - they are very direly crippled. Many people think communicatively; while you might not be their only outlet for working through their ideas, social shame for imprecise language can do your work for you across the board if you hit someone vulnerable hard enough. If you offer them worse words instead of expecting them to guess, they might only be crippled to the degree of wearing uncomfortable shoes, but that's still too much. Don't set up shop a block farther away than you had to and dress code folks for wearing Crocs. Communication is already difficult.

Some things I am not saying:

Nah. Block people on every website you use over ship names and disown your sister for saying "moist" for all I care. You also have my blanket permission to use any sarcastic defense mechanism that works for you against your abusive parents if you have those, or whatever.

By all means offer. "I think the preferred term is 'transgender' this week." But if they can't abide the difference in shade of meaning or mouthfeel, maybe even if they overtly announce it's just because they want to call it like they see it and they see it in some horrid way, don't try to correct them by pretending to be missing that section of your dictionary when you really aren't.

No. My examples have in common that they point at things and you can tell what things they are by being a speaker of the language in the conversational context. If someone starts calling cardboard boxes "pants" for no reason they're just wrong and you don't have to learn their stupid code.

60 comments

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comment by Dagon · 2018-05-24T19:12:16.285Z · score: 44 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Thinking a bit more about the times when I nitpick a technicality rather than digging into a real disagreement:

Both of your examples are cases where there's a LOT of subtext (friend implying status and/or attempting to influence my purchase decisions, grandma asserting authority and enforcing her preferences by implying universality), and much of the time I won't want to risk the relationships by directly contradicting or correcting them, _NOR_ by walking away and never seeing them again. And yet, it grates on me to take the option you didn't call out: just meekly accept the underlying disagreement. I totally get that the initial-response mechanism of pointing out that they've used a word in a way that doesn't exactly match a dictionary does not further a rational discussion, but I'm not sure a rational discussion is what these examples are.

Pedantry like this _is_ a way to assert a little bit of independence/disagreement (or, less justifiably, dominance), and to open the concept of disagreement in a way that's deniable, and start a subtle, unacknowledged negotiation which can be de-escalated easily if either party decides it's not worth pursuing.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-05-24T10:17:30.819Z · score: 43 (13 votes) · LW · GW

The technology example reminded me of Darcey Riley's discussion of shattered dichotomies: sometimes people think of things as being either X or Y, and then learn an argument for why this dichotomy doesn't make sense. As a result, they might reject the dichotomy entirely, keep it but conclude that "everything is X" or "everything is Y", or acknowledge the argument but find the dichotomy useful regardless.

For instance, back in high school philosophy class, I used to argue that “all people are selfish”. If you’re hurt, and I go to help you, it’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s because the sight of you in pain causes me to feel pain, and I, selfishly, want to relieve my own pain (or I want to avoid the guilt I’d feel for not helping). Similarly, if I give you a gift, it’s not because I’m altruistic; it’s because I selfishly want the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from gift-giving.
In high school, I thought this was a great argument. As an adult, I roll my eyes. It’s not that the argument is wrong, per se; based on the definition of “selfish”, it really is possible to classify all actions as selfish. I just don’t think it’s useful. Our folk concepts of “selfless” and “selfish” might be fuzzy and imprecise (as all concepts are), but they help us navigate a complicated world. When you realize that your friend Mike is selfish, you might decide to hang out with him less, or to avoid doing him favors because you know they won’t be reciprocated. And when you’re deciding whether to give your friend Steve a ride to the airport, you might agree to do it, because you don’t want him to think you’re selfish.
(Though maybe the shattering of this dichotomy can be useful for some people! If someone suffers from scrupulosity, and is wracked with unnecessary guilt that they’ve chosen the selfish option too often, then completely removing the distinction between “selfish” and “selfless” could be exactly what they need.)
Another shattered dichotomy I’ve encountered is the people who argue “A city is just as natural as a pristine forest, because cities were made by humans, and humans are part of nature. A city is just as much a natural structure as a bird’s nest or an anthill.” I neither agree nor disagree with this argument; it’s really just a matter of what you want the concepts to mean. And that, in turn, will depend on what you’re using them for. A lot of people (myself included) find natural landscapes beautiful, but also find industrial complexes ugly. And, while I’ll always probably find refineries ugly on a visceral level, this argument helps me appreciate them as part of the ecosystem of human activity, which I do in fact find beautiful. So in that particular instance, I appreciate the shattering of the dichotomy. But when someone says “pollution in the Shenandoah river isn’t a big deal, because industrial waste is just as natural as fish poop”, then I’m going to object, because they’re relying on the standard inference “natural => harmless”, and they’re trying to get you to classify pollution as natural so you’ll think of it as harmless as well.
comment by Lanrian · 2018-05-28T11:06:20.290Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think the example with selfishness is wrong even on technical grounds. It's pretty easy to construct examples where people will help even though they'll suffer from it, and while you can construe weird reasons why even this would be selfish (like insane hyperbolic discounting), Occam's razor says we should go with the simple explanation, i.e. people actually care about others. Nate's post about it is good: http://mindingourway.com/the-stamp-collector/

comment by Thomas K (thomas-k) · 2018-05-29T11:19:02.559Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Without really making a point here, I think it's possible to make the definition of "selfishness" broad enough that really everything (a rational agent does) is selfish.

Like, you can also make the definition of "god" broad enough so that the probability of God existing gets arbitrarily close to 1 (for example, by allowing the gravitational force to be seen as a god). So, if we define "selfishness" as "maximizing your utility function" then every rational agent is selfish by the definition of "rational agent" (the utility function can value other people). Of course, as the text quoted above says, the word then has lost all its usefulness.

I think even an extreme example like: "What about an agent who is forced to do something that decreases their utility by threat of death?" falls under that broad definition because a rational agent will only go along with this if they expect death to be worse under their utility function.

Of course, humans are not really rational agents, so the original question of whether humans are always selfish is a bit harder to answer.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-24T19:59:14.390Z · score: -19 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Wouldn't it be lovely if we could use words that actually mean what we want them to mean?

In OP, "technology", is used for distracting things - I'm sure the grandma would not object to grandpa's hearing aid, but she would object to a newspaper (if anybody still read those).

In your quote, "selfish", means a lack of empathy (I'm not helping you because I don't care how you feel), or foresight (I'm not giving you a gift, because I don't see how that would affect our future relationship).

Also, "natural", probably means "something that was common 10 thousand years ago".

On one hand, sure, we have to make use of the words what we have. But on the other hand, it's not like we're running out of sounds to use. And you don't even need new words for some of these.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2018-05-26T01:30:30.174Z · score: 26 (8 votes) · LW · GW

[Moderator note:] I've recently found that your comments pretty reliably ended up in frustrating conversations for both parties (multiple authors and commenters have sent us PMs complaining about their interactions with you), were often downvoted, and often just felt like they were missing the point of the original article.

You are clearly putting a lot of time into commenting on LW, and I think that's good, but I think right now it would be a lot better if you would comment less often, and try to increase the average quality of the comments you write. I think right now you are taking up a lot of bandwidth on the site, disproportionate to the quality of your contributions.

comment by Idea10 · 2018-06-10T22:29:06.484Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wouldn't it be lovely if we could use words that actually mean what we want them to mean?

Unfortunately, this is incredibly hard to do. It's much easier to notice patterns than identify the relevant property. For example:

Also, "natural", probably means "something that was common 10 thousand years ago".

is wrong. Nearly all ecosystems have been heavily modified by human presence since 10 thousand years ago.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2018-06-13T16:15:20.285Z · score: 23 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Pedantry is like American football. You have to be smart enough to play, but stupid enough to think it worth playing.

Or, pedantry is like bling. To poor people, bling makes you look rich, but to rich people, bling makes you look poor. Even so, to stupid people, pedantry makes you look smart, and to smart people, pedantry makes you look stupid.

Rule of thumb: your grandma is always smart enough to know when you're being stupid.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-24T07:14:42.796Z · score: 21 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I’d submit this post for curation if that feature was working, but since it’s not, I’m saying it in a comment. This is excellent.

comment by Jonathan Doolin (jonathan-doolin) · 2018-05-27T12:07:44.357Z · score: 16 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What is the rubric that marks the difference between a good semantic argument/point/question, and a bad semantic argument/point/question.

I would say there must be some rubric that marks the difference between "seeking clarity and understanding" and "seeking ambiguity and confusion".

Sometimes it is the person saying "I would like to mention this other definition of the word" who is seeking clarity.

Sometimes it is the person saying "Oh, come on, you know what I mean." who is seeking clarity.

And sometimes it's not necessarily about facts... It's about who get's to decide what is proper, and what is not. In each of the examples, "chemicals in food", "technology at the dinner table." one can legitimately ask--what concerns you about the chemicals in the food? What concerns you about the technology at the dinner table?

For the chemicals in the food example, what is probably a concern that they must rely on their own knowledge to decide whether each of the ingredients in the package is safe, and a lack of trust in the systems government and business have worked out to assure that foods are safe. That's actually a reasonable conversation to have, but not necessarily one you want to have before you leave the grocery store.

For "technology at the dinner table" one can probably reasonably assume that this is a question about propriety... Namely whether eating together at a dinner table constitutes a shared family experience, or if it is a multiplayer solitaire experience. Of course, one might note that the table and chairs are, in some sense, simple technology designed to support this shared family experience.

comment by roystgnr · 2018-05-31T21:58:23.851Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · LW · GW
the thing you know perfectly well people mean when they say "chemicals"

I honestly don't understand what that thing is, actually.

To use an example from a Facebook post I saw this week:

Is P-Menthane-3,8-diol (PMD) a chemical? What about oil from the lemon eucalyptus tree? Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is typically refined until it's 70% PMD instead of 2%; does that turn it into a chemical? What if we were to refine it all the way to 100%? What if, now that we've got 100% PMD, we just start using PMD synthesized at a chemical plant instead?

I do like the idea from another comment here that

the motte is "technically, everything is a chemical," and the bailey is "No need to worry about the content of the food you buy."

But even that can be inverted. People buy "no nitrites added" bacon to try to avoid a dangerous chemical, and they end up getting the result of (all natural! organic!) celery-juice and celery-powder processes. At best, the nitrates in the celery still end up getting converted to nitrites during curing, except that now there's another loose variable in the production so a balance between "cardiac/cancer risk from high nitrite levels" versus "botulism risk from low nitrite levels" is even harder to achieve. At worst, the consumer falsely believes they've no further need to worry about the content of the food they buy, and so they don't moderate consumption of it they way they would have moderated consumption of "chemicals".

comment by Silver_Swift · 2018-06-05T14:07:45.884Z · score: 26 (11 votes) · LW · GW
I honestly don't understand what that thing is, actually.

This was also my first response when reading the article, but on second glance I don't think that is entirely fair. The argument I want to convey with "Everything is chemicals!" is something along the lines of "The concept that you use the word chemicals for is ill-defined and possibly incoherent and I suspect that the negative connotations you associate with it are largely undeserved.", but that is not what I'm actually communicating.

Suppose I successfully convince people that everything is, in fact, chemicals, people start using the word chemicals in a strictly technical sense and use the word blorps for what is currently the common sense definition of chemicals. In this situation "Everything is chemicals!" stops being a valid counterargument, but blorps is still just as ill-defined and incoherent a concept as it was before. People correctly addressed the concern I raised, but not the concern I had, which suggest that I did not properly communicate my concern in the first place.

comment by jimrandomh · 2018-06-05T18:05:22.404Z · score: 18 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's actually an implicit two-place predicate. Part of what's meant by "chemical" is that it's suspicious, and whether something's suspicious or not depends on what you know about it. How things are labelled on food packages is related to their safety in such a way that treating "P-Menthane-3,8-diol" as more suspicious than "lemon eucalyptus extract" is actually correct.

comment by SilentCal · 2018-06-08T16:16:28.013Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Perceived chemical-ness is a very rough heuristic for the degree of optimization a food has undergone for being sold in a modern economy (see http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/04/25/book-review-the-hungry-brain/ for why this might be something you want to avoid). Very, very rough--you could no doubt list examples of 'non-chemicals' that are more optimized than 'chemicals' all day, as well as optimizations that are almost certainly not harmful. And yet I'd wager the correlation is there.

comment by shminux · 2018-05-25T06:41:29.754Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Somewhat of the topic of accurate labels: This reminds me of Scott A's old posts on the Non-central Example Fallacy and Motte-and-Bailey: A statement starting with " Technically, ..." is designed to pick out a non-central example, like that from the post, the motte of, say, "Technically, MLK was a criminal," to justify the bailey of, say, "Shoplifing is no big deal, even though it is against the law." Or, in your example, the motte is "technically, everything is a chemical," and the bailey is "No need to worry about the content of the food you buy."

As for the term for your first example, it is something like an industrial synthetic compounds never found in a home cooking recipe.

comment by Dagon · 2018-05-25T17:33:37.010Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Gah, I keep finding myself in the unpleasant position that I agree in general, but every example I see is problematic. "shoplifting is no big deal even though it's against the law" is a weird thing to say unless in response to "shoplifting IS a big deal because it's against the law". And the latter _should_ be attacked by showing all the ways that the law is insufficient evidence of big-deal-ness. The motte-and-baily is on the other foot in this case (bailey being "shoplifting is illegal", motte being "shoplifting is a big deal").

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-24T07:00:29.106Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Relevant Tumblr post (not mine)

comment by ozymandias · 2018-05-24T16:04:11.082Z · score: 13 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I feel like the example for "loading definitions" does, in fact, strike a word from my vocabulary without suitable replacement. I would like a word for "the aspects of masculinity that are bad"; in order to prevent the conversation turning into a bunch of complaints about my use of a particular term, I instead have to just say "masculinity." I do not want to use "masculinity" to mean "the aspects of masculinity that are bad." I would like to distinguish between those two things.

(While I have no moderation power, I would personally really prefer that this conversation not turn into a conversation about the merits of that particular term.)

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-24T16:49:57.688Z · score: 16 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I don't fully endorse the linked Tumblr post; in particular there's certainly ways to resolve these conflicts that aren't "abdicate the terminology yourself". But some of it is highly relevant and well said.

comment by Paperclip Minimizer · 2018-05-28T15:49:33.174Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I talk about the probability of rain tomorrow, and you ask me if this a “subjective probability”, “frequentist probability”, or a “propensity”. The math would be the same. The expected utility of carrying an umbrella is high.

Argh ! NO. The kind of probability that matter when calculating expected utility and making decisions based on expected utility is the Bayesian kind. The math WOULDN'T be the same. There is no such thing as the frequency of rain tomorrow beyond 100% if it does rain and 0% if it doesn't, so you can't compute it before the event happened. Propensity is more complicated and possibly incoherent as a concept, but you can't compute it either.

comment by steven0461 · 2018-05-24T20:38:21.039Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You can solve this by adding scare quotes or the phrase "so to speak". E.g., "That brand of dip is full of 'chemicals', so to speak." That way, you're safe from pedants without intruding on the existing meaning of the word "chemicals".

comment by Dagon · 2018-05-24T18:03:28.291Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I have to say that I'm guilty of such pedantry (playfully, in my mind. perhaps not to the recipient, and I'll examine more closely next time it comes up), especially to break the ice when I don't think the reasonable but non-compliant response will be well-received.

I do think that language and communication _is_ personal and idiosyncratic, and a demand that I provide a single word for a concept that can be used in other contexts is somewhere between onerous and just unlikely. Clarification using many words is often perfectly reasonable. If you also want to agree that "in this context only, X is shorthand for 'the thing we've just spent 3 minutes defining'", that can make some further conversations easier.

I fully share and support at least one motivation behind this peeve: spending time arguing about definitions should take up very little of your cruxing effort. Agree on concepts, then identify the actual disagreements.

comment by mayleaf · 2018-06-13T01:40:48.768Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What if the thing you're trying to say is "I think the categorization scheme implied by your use of <word> is wrong, and will cause you to make wrong predictions?" This was the first thing that came to mind when I read your example about "chemicals" -- I objected to my dad's use of "chemicals" a few years ago, and it led to us discussing how that term conflates "has a scary-sounding name" with "has any evidence of being harmful at all". My dad previously thought that willowbark extract might be healthier/less harmful than aspirin, despite them both having the same active ingredient (salicylic acid).

I agree that people don't always want to debate about whether they're making a category error; if someone says they want to avoid food with chemicals and I object to their categorization scheme and they say "I'm not interested in debating that, please respect my food preferences so we can finish this shopping trip", then I should definitely drop the issue. But are your preferences that I shouldn't even bring it up?

(I might be typical minding somewhat here; I've gotten a lot of mileage from various rationalist friends asking me to taboo certain words in discussion, which forces me to think more carefully and often causes me to notice distinctions that I was eliding. So I like the tool of striking words from my vocabulary!)

comment by mayleaf · 2018-06-13T02:09:01.020Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Re-reading your post, it looks like you're mostly objecting to people feigning ignorance when a word they don't like comes up, which I agree is an annoying thing to do. I'm curious about whether you also object to people saying things like:

  • "Incel is a horrible word; it conflates 'men who are sad about not having any sex' with 'misogynistic and violent men'. I worry that its popularity will influence people to be more hostile towards any man who complains about romantic loneliness."
  • "I dislike rationlists' usage of 'defect', it's seemed to have broadened to the point of meaning 'any behavior I dislike or think is wrong'. I wish we'd all just agree to taboo that word and specify exactly what we're objecting to instead."
comment by Alicorn · 2018-07-14T19:21:09.194Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think those examples are fine in many possible contexts. You can make a blog post with either instance as content just fine. My objection would come up if someone said "incel" and you said it was a horrible word instead of responding to their statement about incels - make that suggestion at another time. You could, if genuinely puzzled, ask if they mean incels as in lonely or incels as in violent misogynists, but I think context will tend to make that clear. And where it doesn't they don't in fact mean one of those things - they mean the conflation, and the word communicated that!

comment by eschatology · 2018-05-28T08:08:33.924Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Considering the fact that 80% of people think that food containing DNA should be labeled maybe pedantry in cases similar to the first one is actually the correct response (depending on who you talk to of course).

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-28T21:56:55.749Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No; if someone thinks DNA is a chemical, they’re just wrong, and you can explain it to them easily enough. “This food contains DNA?! Ew! I don’t eat food with chemicals in it!” “No, no. ‘DNA’ is just a fancy term for something perfectly natural. There’s lots of DNA in your body! It’s part of blood and muscle and bone and everything.” “Oh, ok then.”

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-06-03T12:48:31.701Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When it comes to the issue of "chemicals" in food, it's a well-defined term in the EU. It also makes a lot of sense to legislate different substances differently.

It would be madness to say that everyone who sells an apple has to list the thousand of different proteins that are in the apple on the ingredients list in a way that it isn't to tell food produces to list added substances that normally aren't found in apples.

On the same token, there's an argument to be made for the EU policy of saying that when somebody decides to add a new "chemical" to food that wasn't used before, they have to do toxicity tests in a way that the farmer who's wheat naturally evolves to express a new protein doesn't (there are huge problems with even requiring the farmer to know every protein in his wheat).

comment by tcheasdfjkl · 2018-05-25T00:42:12.230Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with this argument in general but not for slurs. I think it's appropriate to exert social pressure to prevent those.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2018-06-03T20:20:56.779Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You should stop using the word "slur" because most of the time that people use it they are lying (see the examples in the OP). I don't have a replacement word.

comment by jimrandomh · 2018-05-26T06:46:40.401Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Are those really an example of this pattern? Slurs typically combine a group signifier with an insult; it's normally pretty easy to replace that a non-slur group signifier and a separate insult. It's unlikely that someone using a slur will have difficulty coming up with different words that mean the same thing. They'll just... not want to use those words, because they're less deniable.

comment by rossry · 2018-05-26T15:21:31.470Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

1) My model of people who use slurs as a significant part of their expressive vocabulary is that at least some of them use the slur to mean "member of group [X] I don't like", as explicitly opposed to "member of group [X] I feel indifferent-to-positive about". A neutral group signifier plus optional insult alone fails to encode this distinction, perhaps making it a less-than-suitable replacement.

2) I read:

I think people are within their rights to reject a proposed replacement for not meaning the right thing, sounding ugly, being one syllable longer, being hard to spell, not rhyming in a poem they're trying to write, and vague gut feeling that you're just trying to control them.

...to be pretty clear about whether a more-verbose construction that requires the speaker to separate their personal insult can fail to be a suitable replacement.

None of this means that the general principle can't or shouldn't have a carve-out for slurs; My only intended argument is that, as expressed above, it seems plausible to me that finding suitable replacements requires significant effort (and basically is never done in practice by people attempting to remove slurs from others' excessive vocabulary).

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-26T16:30:37.161Z · score: 19 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Some people are in fact responsive to "that's a slur; the preferred term is X", especially if X isn't a barbarous use of language, if they were using the slur to encompass the whole group and got caught by a euphemism treadmill or just pick up their vocabulary from sources unsympathetic to Xes. And you don't have to reject an offered word for being a syllable longer if you want to make that tradeoff. I think this is a case of Postel's law, or should be.

comment by ksvanhorn · 2018-05-26T18:53:09.767Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hmmm. I would be responsive to "that's a slur," but the follow-on "the preferred term is X" raises my hackles. The former is merely a request to be polite; the latter feels like someone is trying to dictate vocabulary to me.

comment by tcheasdfjkl · 2018-05-28T01:09:30.567Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's much better to offer a replacement than not.

comment by rossry · 2018-05-27T02:08:49.502Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, I certainly didn't mean to imply that there weren't cases of suitable replacements for slurs (or that it wouldn't be valuable to find such); rather, I only meant to claim that there existed a case where it isn't obvious how to find a suitable replacement (contra jimrandomh above).

comment by Idea10 · 2018-06-10T22:29:49.176Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In those cases the people declaring said words to be "slurs" are probably up to no good, i.e., trying to restrict language to keep people from noticing the patterns implied by the "slurs".

if they were using the slur to encompass the whole group and got caught by a euphemism treadmill

comment by Idea10 · 2018-06-10T22:30:07.227Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

if they were using the slur to encompass the whole group and got caught by a euphemism treadmill

In that case, I don't see what social purpose is served by encouraging the euphemism treadmill to spin faster and can think of some negative effects of doing so. For example, previously written work, which uses the old term will be more likely to "trigger" people thus causing people to be cut off from the past. Also it causes people to confuse changing a word with changing reality.

comment by Jiro · 2018-06-06T19:44:51.288Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know perfectly well what someone means when they say the dip is full of chemicals. I know roughly what they mean, but I can't figure out exactly what they mean, or even know if they have a consistent or thought out definition at all.

When telling them that the dip contains dihydrogen monoxide, I am not being pedantic; I am saying "the plain meaning of what you are saying doesn't make sense. And any not-plain meanings are beyond my ability to guess, so could you please tell me what you're really trying to say?"

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-26T07:24:56.528Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Unfortunately, this is incredibly hard to do. It's much easier to notice patterns than identify the relevant property.

Noticing patterns is all that there is to do. There is no magic word that means exactly what you want to say. But some patterns are better at identifying the relevant properties than others. And I believe that pushing people to use more accurate words has some value.

Nearly all ecosystems have been heavily modified by human presence since 10 thousand years ago.

Yes, they have. And those modifications could be said to be unnatural. E.g. the fact that there aren't as many forests is unnatural, and there were more 10k years ago. But also many things stayed the same. E.g. the fact that squirrels still live in those forests is natural, and there were also squirrels 10k years ago.

Do you have a specific example where you could say "X is natural", but not "X was common 10k years ago"?

Of course, ideally we'd say something is natural if it would have happened anyway if humans had never had any influence on it, but that's hard to say, and looking at 10k years ago is a good-enough approximation.

Also, there is the issue of what is natural for humans. I don't think the common usage of "natural" says anything about that, and I guess the 10k year rule doesn't work here.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-26T06:58:42.759Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the long term problems caused by natural ingredients are that well known. Nutrition is hard.

comment by sirjackholland · 2018-05-28T21:03:20.605Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I definitely agree with the general principle of this post and the "technology" example made the principle clear and useful to me, but something feels off about applying this principle to the "chemicals" example. I think it's because most of the time, when someone says that something has "chemicals", what they mean is that it contains ingredients that aren't "natural", which is a term I've always found very confusing. There are plenty of technically false dichotomies that are nevertheless useful approximations, e.g. I'm sure there are edge cases between deciduous and evergreen trees, but it's an obviously useful label when discussing whether or not you expect a tree to have leaves in the winter.

But I genuinely don't know what "natural" is supposed to (approximately) carve up, especially in the realm of foods. If you boil tea leaves, are the resulting compounds natural? If yes, then at what point do things become unnatural? If no, then is anything that's not raw and unprocessed unnatural, including e.g. cooked meat or boiled potatoes? There is clearly a spectrum between "raw and unprocessed" and "industrially engineered" but I don't see any reasonable place to draw the line. And this makes the word "natural" in the context of foods too vague to be useful - every time someone uses it, you have to ask a series of followup questions to figure out where they (arbitrarily) draw the line.

And so I think a reasonable followup to "this food contains chemicals" is "virtually everything is chemicals - what do you mean it contains chemicals?" This is essentially a less snarky version of your "no" example, but I don't think it's stripping from someone a word we don't have an optimal replacement for - it's stripping from someone a word that is not clear enough to have any substantial meaning without further clarification. That is, it's stripping from someone a word that wastes everyone else's time.

This makes me want to slightly amend your rule: "Thou shalt not strike a term from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement unless the term invariably requires thou to ask for a clarifying definition." - someone who gets really annoyed when people assume their arbitrary threshold in (un)natural-space is everyone else's.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-29T16:16:13.684Z · score: 37 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I want to point out that there are lots of situations where English speakers fluently use words that don't have clear dividing lines between their applicability and their inapplicability - it depends on context and details. "The music is loud." What if I'm deaf or far away or like to be able to feel the bass line in my bones? That doesn't make the sentence impermissible or even hard to understand and I don't need the speaker to produce a decibel value. "If you go to high altitudes, the air is thinner and you might get dizzy." How high? If I'm dizzy in Denver and the speaker thinks you shouldn't need to adjust your behavior until there are Sherpas about and meanwhile Batman can breathe in space, that doesn't make the sentence false, let alone useless. "It's cold, bring a jacket." Oh you sweet summer child, I'm good in short sleeves, thanks, I just don't know what you meant by "cold" -

There are lots of conversational purposes for which you don't in fact have to know where someone draws the line. You don't even need to be able to agree on every point's ordering in the spectrum ("it's colder today" "that's just windchill"). The words gesture in a direction. I think "chemicals" does too, and you know what direction because you came up with "unprocessed" as a gloss on "low in chemicals". If someone doesn't buy that brand of dip because it's full of chemicals, in your innocent confusion I suggest you glance at the ingredients list for a guess at the threshold in question.

comment by Jotto999 · 2018-07-10T22:41:51.804Z · score: -9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

A major (attempted and ongoing) transition in my conversational approach is to try and focus on the prediction at hand, as explicitly as possible, as often as possible. Especially when there is a disagreement. It might help avoid this kind of pedantic behavior (if I can remind myself to stick to the predictions at hand).

Speaking of being pedantic, I don't like some of the writing style you used here. I know, an old complaint about this site; here it is anyway:

Use your own words, ask your own questions, but don't enforce an inadequate prescriptivism with feigned incomprehension while your interlocutor only wants you to pass the peas.

I was fine with most of this sentence, but using "interlocutor" broke the camel's back for me. Why not say "the other person" or something? Could've given the same information, with a lower barrier to entry and less mental energy required. You want as many potential readers to get it, right? I predict it would've gone better worded another way. Try to write like Paul Graham.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-24T08:09:07.071Z · score: -11 (15 votes) · LW · GW

I'm all for less pedantry, but

there doesn't seem to actually exist a word in English for the thing you know perfectly well people mean when they say "chemicals".

Maybe that's because "chemicals" isn't a natural category? I don't really know what is meant by that word. It could be something about the manufacturing process. But possibly it just means "complicated words listed on the packaging" and nothing more.

I am not saying: you, yes you, have to talk to people who use words you can't stand or in ways you can't stand

Yes. And if I don't want to talk to people who use those words, and someone says those words to me, then I'm going to reply with something like your "No" replies. Thus, saying "Technically, everything is chemicals", is, in fact, very reasonable.

comment by ozymandias · 2018-05-24T16:58:12.210Z · score: 46 (11 votes) · LW · GW

One polite way to respond to people using words you prefer they not use is "[Word] upsets me for [Reason], can you use [Replacement Word] instead?" If they can't (because they're not a native English speaker, or they have a linguistic disability, or they are chronically sleep deprived, to name just three of the reasons that word replacement can be impossible), then you have to judge how important not being around people who use Word is for you.

You could also consider asking what they mean if you don't know what they mean. My rough sense is something like "a cluster of chemicals the central examples of which require industrial manufacturing processes to create, did not exist before the 20th century, are not part of any culture's traditional way of doing things, could not be manufactured in a home kitchen, and bear little resemblance to petroleum, corn, or soybeans in spite of being derived from them."

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-24T19:37:06.609Z · score: -13 (6 votes) · LW · GW
One polite way to respond <...>

What this post about politeness all along? I thought it was about efficient communication.

"a cluster of chemicals the central examples of which require industrial manufacturing processes to create, did not exist before the 20th century, are not part of any culture's traditional way of doing things, could not be manufactured in a home kitchen, and bear little resemblance to petroleum, corn, or soybeans in spite of being derived from them."

The part about cultures cuts out way too much, I think. The part about home kitchen, seems dubious, I suspect some "chemicals" are quite easy to make, though I don't know. The part about 20th century could work.

But then it remains to ask whether "I avoid eating chemicals", is any more reasonable than "I avoid eating yellow food". Can we use the fact that a chemical was first synthesized in the 20th century, to predict something about that chemical?

comment by ozymandias · 2018-05-25T01:03:38.599Z · score: 28 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Politeness is often useful instrumentally in order to communicate efficiently.

I attempted to describe the central examples of a similarity cluster; not everything in a similarity cluster will have all the traits associated with that cluster. ("Ten fingers" is part of the human similarity cluster, but some humans have nine fingers.)

It might be silly to have a "I don't eat yellow food" diet, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have the concept of yellow. Indeed, I would argue that there are far more concepts that do not provide good diet advice than concepts which do.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-25T07:51:33.120Z · score: -12 (7 votes) · LW · GW
Politeness is often useful instrumentally in order to communicate efficiently.

Rudeness is also often useful instrumentally in order to communicate efficiently.

It might be silly to have a "I don't eat yellow food" diet, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have the concept of yellow.

I admit, the complaints "chemical isn't a natural category" and "avoiding chemicals is a silly diet" are distinct. But somehow it makes sense for me to say the former when I also think the latter. I think, the fact that the category isn't natural makes the diet sillier. E.g. if someone said "I don't eat meat (for non-moral reasons)", I may still think they're being silly, but at least I can imagine possible worlds where that diet would make sense. On the other hand, "I don't eat meat from animals with 3 toes", is on a whole different order of magnitude of silliness.

comment by Dagon · 2018-05-26T18:10:29.224Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting - to rephrase, you're saying that you might react this way as part of a reductio-ad-absurdum argument? Seems reasonable, does it work well?

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-26T19:48:41.174Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW
Seems reasonable, does it work well?

What do you mean by "works well"? Getting positive responses from real people? I doubt it, but I don't think I've ever explained it like this to anyone. I don't do the "everything is chemicals" reply that often in the first place.

comment by Paperclip Minimizer · 2018-05-28T15:54:21.433Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't be surprised there was some Bible verse about how it is a sin to eat meat from animals with 3 toes. Religions tend to have diet advice which is "silly" by your definition.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-24T16:48:40.834Z · score: 30 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Extensionally, "chemicals" is food coloring that doesn't come straight out of a whole food, disodium edta, ammonia, peroxide, acetone, sulfur dioxide, aspartame, sodium aluminosilicate, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sodium sorbate, methylchloroisothiazolinone....

And not: apple juice, water, table salt, vodka, flour, sugar, milk...

A thing doesn't have to be a natural category for people to want to talk about it and have a legitimate interest in talking about it.

I disagree with your second point and think you're missing mine. If you don't want to talk to someone, don't talk to them. You don't have to be cruel, and your desire to be cruel doesn't make it reasonable.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-24T19:38:19.143Z · score: -8 (9 votes) · LW · GW
You don't have to be cruel

"Cruel" might be a bit of a stretch. I could agree that your "No" replies are passive aggressive, which is frowned upon, but I don't think that being passive aggressive is an unreasonable strategy.

Extensionally, "chemicals" is food coloring that doesn't come straight out of a whole food, disodium edta, ammonia, peroxide, acetone, sulfur dioxide, aspartame, sodium aluminosilicate, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sodium sorbate, methylchloroisothiazolinone....

Well, that's a long list. Doesn't explain very much though. How do you feel about carbonic acid, baking soda or pure alcohol? Also, what would happen if I took one item from you chemical list, and discovered that it is contained in and extractable from one of the items in your non-chemical list?

A thing doesn't have to be a natural category for people to want to talk about it and have a legitimate interest in talking about it.

Nobody can stop you from talking about whatever you want. But it doesn't help you reach correct conclusions.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-05-24T19:50:29.687Z · score: 22 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I had a similar reaction: for the example of grandma saying "no technology", yes, I know what she means and pointing out the thing about tables and glasses would just be stupid. But for the thing with chemicals, until I read this post, I didn't feel like I had a good handle of what exactly their mental model was and how they defined this category.

Now, in the process of writing this comment, I gave it some thought, and came to the conclusion that something like "synthesized vs. naturally-occuring" would probably be roughly what these people mean. But that was only after it was specifically suggested to me that they might have a sensible concept they're pointing at; when I read the example, my assumption was just that they didn't have a coherent model and weren't very familiar with chemistry, in which case "everything is chemicals" would have been fine as a response.

comment by Raemon · 2018-05-24T22:16:32.434Z · score: 65 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I guess this post is a bit of a typical mind-fallacy check for me, on the "not everyone has read In Defense of Food (or something similar)" front.

Defense of Food has a bit of the naturalistic fallacy going on, but I think it's core point is at least a hypothesis worth talking about and being able to make distinctions around.

Somewhere in the 20th century, people started getting a cluster of "Western diseases" (i.e obesity, heart disease) that seem to have something to do with diet (although non-diet lifestyle changes are another contender).

In general, the 20th century saw lots of industrialization that radically changed both diet and lifestyle. But in the diet front, there's a specific with worth noting:

Prior to mid-20th century, we did not have very fine control over what sorts of chemicals went into food. Food was made of chunks of organic matter with a lot of complex reactions going on. Mid-20th century, we started being able to break that down into parts and optimize it.

And this meant that suddenly, food became goodhartable in a way that it hadn't before. Industry could optimize it for tastiness/addictiveness, with a lot of incentives to do that without regard for health (and, not a lot of clear information on how to optimize it for health even if you wanted to, since health is long-term and tastiness is immediate).

So there is reason to want to be able to distinguish "food constructed the way we've been constructing it for thousands of years" and "food we only recently began to be able to construct."

Now, this hypothesis might be wrong. Lots of people are just applying the naturalistic fallacy (in a way that also outputs preferences for 'alternative medicine' and the like). But, if you're worried about that, it's probably more helpful to respond one of the first three ways Alicorn suggests, rather than on the level of "obviously everything is chemicals."

...

I did realizing in seeing Kaj's comment and thinking through my reply, that this is fairly complex background framing, and if you don't have it in mind, it may be hard to notice in realtime that the "everything is chemicals" response might be missing the point, and I'm not (currently) sure if there's an algorithm I could recommend people run that would easily separate pedantry from potentially-important reframing

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-24T23:56:18.719Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I guess this post is a bit of a typical mind-fallacy check for me, on the “not everyone has read In Defense of Food (or something similar)” front.

Defense of Food has a bit of the naturalistic fallacy going on, but I think it’s core point is at least a hypothesis worth talking about and being able to make distinctions around.

What’s this now…? A book, or what?

comment by Raemon · 2018-05-25T00:13:26.454Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yup, a book. Not sure whether it's super important to read in full (I think my comment here roughly covers the most important bit, but if it seemed interesting you may want to check it out)

Also, I wrote a LW Post on it many years back [LW · GW] (I think it's possible this was literally my first LW post, and if not was my second or third, so it has a bit of the "newbie introducing themselves" vibe.)

Amazon link for the book is here.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-24T20:36:55.231Z · score: 30 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I wish to clarify that I'm not asserting that everyone knows exactly what things are "chemicals" and what things are not. There's room for disagreement, for one thing, and the disagreements might turn on all kinds of little points about where a substance came from and even why it was added to the food. But I do think that given two lists of ingredients for different brands of, say, packaged guacamole, you could distinguish "few to no chemicals" from "lots of chemicals". That there isn't a strict, look-up-able boundary of necessary and sufficient conditions that fits in a "coherent model" doesn't mean it's not useful to gesture at for some purposes, sort of like music genres. I don't have a coherent model of music genres and I couldn't elaborate much on what I mean if I call a song "poppy" or "jazzy" but that doesn't mean it's not a statement I might reasonably utter.

comment by Dagon · 2018-05-26T18:22:39.031Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's a statement that's reasonable to utter, and a statement that a more music-savvy friend might want to understand by asking what you mean, getting some positive and negative examples, and suggesting more precise terminology (along with suggesting specific music, one hopes). Pointing out that your use of those words is likely to confuse people and search engines is something I'd expect you to encourage rather than invoking your peeve.
Note that I recognize that this comment may be an example of the thing you oppose - I'm verbosely challenging a (possibly) non-central point. I'd be interested to hear whether you find this example to be exasperating or valuable.

comment by Alicorn · 2018-05-26T22:39:29.950Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Suggesting search engine terms might be helpful. I don't think I'd ever find "you're going to confuse people" helpful - either I already know that I'm not being very precisely expressive and these are all the words I have, or, if that's not the case, "could you elaborate/rephrase that" would be better. I didn't feel exasperated by this comment but might by a long chain of them on this branch.

comment by Dagon · 2018-05-24T23:33:21.786Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW

(not sure why the parent is so downvoted - it's a bit abrasive, but on-topic and not terribly mean. ]

Maybe that's because "chemicals" isn't a natural category? I don't really know what is meant by that word. It could be something about the manufacturing process. But possibly it just means "complicated words listed on the packaging" and nothing more.

I'm not sure I accept the concept "natural category". In context of food shopping, there is a colloquial use of the term "chemical' that is not precisely defined but used commonly enough to expect that one's friends know mostly what is meant, and in context the edge-cases are irrelevant. "complicated words listed on the packaging" is actually pretty close.

I think many people forget that words don't mean anything. People mean things and use words to convey that meaning. The shared experiences and expectations of what a person might mean by a given set of words is a relationship between the people, not between the words.

I'm fully behind your last point - both participants are free to leave. Both are free to ask the other to change, for that matter, and to complain on the internet.

comment by Pattern · 2018-05-24T17:03:41.238Z · score: 12 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the point was distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable replies to people you value communication with. All else being equal - in the event using such a word doesn't move them from out of the reasonable category for you - a preference is being given for not doing these things.

(I still do similar things with people who value it, because I know people who enjoy talking about language, but otherwise I don't find it as time effective as 'Don't Feed The Trolls', though this tends to be easier said than done, and communicating with people who have poor epistemic/conversational, etc. standards can be difficult (due to inferential distance, or other priorities) - some people go on about today being a 'post-truth' era, because they've talked to too many people who just don't care about truth. There's a feeling you get when you walk away from a discussion knowing that neither of you got anything out of it, and communication didn't take place. Related links.)

Following this post's policy can increase the utility of reasonable people you talk to, and I find that useful because I value reasonable discussion.