NYT Week in Review omnibus

The November 15 NYT Week in Review offers a diverse collection of language-related items. The most distantly related is Nicholas Wade’s “The Evolution of the God Gene”, which Mark Liberman has posted about on Language Log, mostly because it comes only a few days after Wade’s latest piece on FOXP2, the “Speech Gene”.

Then there’s an odd piece excerpted from Harper’s: “When Sartre Talked to Crabs (It Was Mescaline)”. Yes, Jean-Paul Sartre. Back in 1929. The mescaline-induced crabs stayed with him for some time; he says he knew they were imaginary, but he still saw them and talked to them. In the excerpt he doesn’t say whether the crabs answered. But we can wonder about the Language of Crabs.

(I’m sorry, I can’t resist it. With apologies to Paint Your Wagon: “I talk to the crabs / But they don’t listen to me”.)

The most obviously language-related item is the editorial cartoon I posted about on this blog earlier today.

But wait, there’s more. There’s an opinion piece by Earl Blumenauer (Democratic representative from Oregon), “My Near Death Panel Experience”, about the disinformation campaign surrounding a provision, in the health-care bill he helped write, for Medicare-supported voluntary counseling on end-of-life planning.

There followed a series of outrageous distortions of the provision — seniors being put “in a position of being put to death by their government” and the like — culminating in Sarah Palin’s framing the matter as Obama’s proposing to create “death panels”. The term death panel pretty much took over public discussion of health care bills, as well as media reporting on it. Blumenauer:

The “death panel” episode shows how the news media, after aiding and abetting falsehood, were unable to perform their traditional role of reporting the facts. By lavishing uncritical attention on the most exaggerated claims and extreme behavior, they unleashed something that the truth could not dispel.

Then, a fluffy piece by David Segal on “Naming the ’00s” (as 2009 nears its end). Attempts to find names for things by asking for proposals are entertaining, but virtually never result in a consensus answer. Instead, a name spreads (if it does) when people actually use it in their writing and conversation and it resonates with others, who use it themselves. It’s not something that you can legislate, or vote on.

Finally, there’s Catherine Rampell’s “How Old Is Old Enough?”, about the social categories of life stages in the U.S., in particular the distinction between childhood and adulthood. In fact, the piece is about how this distinction is made for legal and administrative purposes, where “bright lines” are needed. (The issue that gave rise to Rampell’s article, because it’s been under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, is the cut-off age for sentencing to life imprisonment without parole.)

But, as Rampell points out,

For drinking, driving, fighting in the military, compulsory schooling, watching an R-rated movie, consenting to sex, getting married, having an abortion or even being responsible for your own finances, the dawn of adulthood in America is all over the place.

Folk categories of life stages don’t usually involve such bright lines; there can be more than two folk categories in this part of the semantic domain; different people have somewhat different schemes of categorization; the folk categories are different in different places and times; and so on. Scientific categorizations are still another matter; as Rampell says, “scientific research has in many ways … blurred, rather than clarified, the distinction between childhood and adulthood.”

So there are three types of categorizations, for different purposes, and more than one scheme of categorization within each type. But discussion of these matters relies — over-relies, I would say — on a binary distinction in English vocabulary, between child(hood) and adult(hood). It’s hard to sort out these matters when only this one distinction is easily available.

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