More stuff

A few more bits I liked in The Stuff of Thought:

Hypernyms elevate

Labeling someone with a small aspect of what they are – a trait or part –  undignifies them. Calling someone a cripple, the blonde, a suit, isn’t nice. The opposite works too often – things sound more dignified if you label them with a larger category than usual. Driving machines and dental cleaning systems sound more pretentious than cars and toothbrushes.

Lots of our phrases rest on the same conceptual metaphors

Though we don’t have a specific saying that ‘up is like good and down is like bad’, it’s easy to see that we equate these things  from our endless sayings that spring from this metaphor. Feeling high, spirits soaring, hitting rock bottom, a downturn, pick me up, low mood, low character, low blow, feeling down, over the moon, I’m above you. I can make up new phrases using the same metaphor and you will know what I mean without apparently thinking about it. These things suggest that the connection between goodness and upness is still active in our minds; these things aren’t idioms.

Intuitions that phrases like ‘pin the wall with posters’ are wrong follow simple rules that we are introspectively oblivious to.

You can say ‘splatter paint on the wall’ or ‘splatter the wall with paint’. You can say ‘pin posters on the wall’. This seems analogous to ‘splatter paint on the wall’, so why don’t we use the same alternative form with that?

The answer is that the first form implies that you were changing the paint or the poster by putting it on the wall, whereas the second form implies that you were changing the wall by putting paint or a poster on it. Painting a wall changes the nature of the wall in our eyes, while pinning posters on it doesn’t.

This explanation holds across the many other examples of this pattern, and similar explanations hold for others. You photograph a wall with your camera, but don’t photograph your camera at the wall. You fling a cat into a room, but you don’t fling a room with a cat. You can load hay into a cart or load a cart with hay.

Some situations it makes sense to frame in a different way and others not. Other conceptual differences that matter with verbs for instance include whether the action was purposeful or accidental, physically direct, took time or was instantaneous, and whether it happened to a person.

Working out why some things sound wrong was a tricky puzzle for the conscious minds of linguists, though the whole time they could say that ‘pour a cup with water’ sounded wrong.

Intuitive causality is different to philosophically reputable conceptions

It’s been suggested that causality is just what we call things we see happen together a lot, or actions that go together across close counterfactual worlds we imagine, or pretty confusing.

Our mental picture of causality seems to be much simpler. It looks like one object with an inherent tendency to move or stay still, and another object standing in its way or pushing it. We have no trouble knowing which counterfactual to compare situations to because inherent in the idea is that the first object had a tendency to do something.

The evidence for this is apparently in the various words we use, for instance which features they bother to differentiate. For instance the difference between forcing something and allowing something is whether the causal agent is pushing the other agent, or not getting in the way of its inherent movement. If our minds were different we may not care about this distinction; in both cases the causer can decide whether the thing should happen, and chooses yes.

2 responses to “More stuff

  1. Great post. I think “low blow” comes from boxing, though.

  2. things sound more dignified if you label them with a larger category than usual

    “What do you mean, ‘we’, mammal?”

    See also calling people “animal(s)” for a less Futurama-specific counterexample.

    Does the difference depend on whether the standard subcategory is the most respected subset of the larger category? Confusing a passenger car with a racecar or a toothbrush with dentists’ tools might raise the status of the former. Telling someone that they have the [trait] of a [specific animal revered for that trait] can be a compliment but just about any other comparison with a wider clade is seen as an insult.


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