Ordinary, technical

In my posting on extreme word rage, as directed against impacted in “impacted wisdom tooth”, I gave a quote from Language Log comment that began:

I haven’t got “wisdom teeth” that create problems …

It’s the quotation marks around wisdom teeth that interests me here. They call attention to the choice of expression, communicating some judgment on it, beyond the literal meaning of the expression; they are “metamarks”. For instance, quotation marks can convey the judgment that the expression is new, or at least relatively recent. Very often they are “sneer quotes”, conveying the judgment that there is something inappropriate about the expression.

That’s what I suspect is going on with “wisdom teeth” above: the quotation marks distance the writer from the word choice, probably conveying that the writer believes this word choice is not correct. That is, I suspect that the writer believes that the correct word choice would be third molars or last molars and that wisdom teeth is slang or something close it.

The attitude that technical terminology from some domain of expertise is the only correct usage and that ordinary language in this domain is defective is surprisingly widespread and also wrong-headed. These things depend on the context, the nature of the user, and this user’s purposes in that context. In the case at hand, wisdom teeth is ordinary language, not slang or loose talk; using third molars or last molars in everyday conversation would be absurdly pedantic. In fact, dentists use wisdom teeth to their patients and expect to hear the expression from their patients. Third molars gets used in only a narrow range of professional contexts, as on dental charts.

The history of wisdom teeth is entertaining. According to OED2, the expression was for some time used only in the plural and originally in the version teeth of wisdom, as in the OED’s first citation, from 1668 — and in specifically technical contexts. An ordinary-language occurrence of teeth of wisdom is attested from 1809 and ordinary-language occurrences of wisdom teeth from 1863 on. The first occurrences are translations of modern Latin dentes sapientiae (with forebears going back to Arabic and Ancient Greek). Along the way the expression moved out of anatomical texts and the like and into ordinary language.

The history is roughly parallel to dental uses of impacted. The relevant verb impact was taken directly from Latin, and the early uses of impacted seem to have been in technical contexts, but it too moved into ordinary language (while continuing to be used in technical contexts, where there is no good alternative).

Vocabulary moves back and forth between ordinary language and technical language (sometimes different systems of technical language, for different purposes). Sometimes meaning is preserved, but often meanings are shifted, in small or large ways. Group and ring and a number of other mathematical terms were taken from ordinary language, but with much altered meaning in the mathematical context. In the other direction, the grammatical term pluperfect was taken into ordinary language in two meanings very different from the way the term is used in grammar; the OED draft revision of March 2009 lists these as:

“as a general intensifier”, marked as colloquial, with cites from 1889 through 2000 (“raise pluperfect Cain”, “catch pluperfect hell”, “a pluperfect mess”, “raise pluperfect hell”); and

“utterly perfect; ideal, faultless”, labeled “hyperbolically”, with cites from 1831 (in “pluperfectly”) through 1992 (“the pluperfect guest”).

It would be churlish for linguists to fault such uses, since they are clearly not about matters of grammatical structure. They are not mistakes. You might find them silly, and you might choose not to use them yourself, but they’re innocuous.

3 Responses to “Ordinary, technical”

  1. Stan Says:

    Ernest Gowers wrote that some scare quotes (though he didn’t call them that) seem to say: “please note that I am using this word facetiously.” I found their use around “wisdom teeth” mystifying, since the term seems at least as common and standard as any alternative, and probably more so. Maybe some other subtlety was intended, but for the sake of my teeth I’m reluctant to investigate further.

  2. Blake Stacey Says:

    I could understand scare quotes being used around wisdom alone; for example, “I don’t have “wisdom” teeth that create problems, I have stupid teeth which need to get sawed out of my jaw, stat!” Putting the metamarks around wisdom teeth is more puzzling.

    I had my teeth-of-wisdom extracted while I was in high school, and I can’t remember a single instance of the medical professionals involved saying third molar or last molar. If the supposedly non-technical term is good enough for the people cutting bits out of my head, it’s technical enough for me.

  3. Parts: vulva and vagina « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] remarked on the traffic between technical and ordinary language on several occasions, for instance here.) One result of this is that for many people vagina now has both a narrower (strictly internal) […]

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