Thursday, March 16, 2006

O General, My General

Have you ever noticed that the phrase “in general” really means “in specific”? In general, when people say it, they actually mean “in most cases” or “on average,” which is just a way of talking about a specific subset of reality.

Without loss of generality, let's pick a concrete example. If you say, “In general, people fear what they do not know,” you lie. In general, some people fear it, and some people do not. In most cases, people do. But then, saying “Most people fear what they do not know,” just doesn't sound as cool.

Actually, I lie. A general desire for validation is not the reason for the above confusion. The definition of general itself is our actual culprit. According to The American Heritage, the first two definitions of general are:

  • Concerned with, applicable to, or affecting the whole or every member of a class or category
  • Affecting or characteristic of the majority of those involved; prevalent

Well, which is it, America? A concept applicable to all, or a concept applicable to most?

Uh... Devin? Why the hell should I care?

It's a linguistic example of how generalities become stereotypes. All it takes is a switch from one definition of a word to the next, for a statement about the majority to become a statement about the entirety. If language influences thought, since it certainly is the basis of communication, and since it's so easy, in our language, to jump from one to the next, it's no wonder that we allow absolutes to linger in the field of popular belief.

That, or it's an excuse for me to do fun word play. I'm not sure which. (I have a guess, though, and it has a lot to do with the fact that it's just as easy for a statement about the entirety to become a statement about the majority. (Now would be an appropriate time for somebody to pipe in about the effect of the vocal minority, were it not for the fact that I'm being overloaded with vague abstractions, and I really need to take a rest.))

Hrm. Maybe I should do a future exploratory rant on the word actual. :P


At 12:13 PM, Blogger Jerry Talton said...

Hahahahah. I was looking at our old CS 373 homeworks last night, and the number of places we write "WLOG" is pretty scary...


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