Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In which I avoid making any jokes about "rigid designators"



T-Rex has touched on this subject in a previous comic, about the etymology of the word "woman." That happened to be a case of "mistaken etymology," but in this case we have real etymology.

I still think it's pretty irrelevant, though. One of my least favorite arguments is, "We shouldn't use this word because of its demeaning etymological roots." It is as if words have some kind of original sin that they take with them everywhere they go. We already have plenty of words that have diverged in meaning from their roots. For example, "coffee cake" refers to a kind of cake that is commonly served with coffee, but it is much beloved by people who do not even drink coffee. When eaten without coffee, it does not stop being "coffee cake." You can also call a city "Dartmouth" even though it is not on the mouth of the Dart river.

The "obscene" alternatives to "vagina" suffer from the problem of ambiguity. "Vagina" refers to something on the inside, while "vulva" refers to most of the things on the outside (the labia, clitoris, and whatever else I could be forgetting). Words like "pussy" and "cunt" are often used to refer to both of these, like when we talk about being able to see Britney Spears's _____ when she gets out of the car: you can see her pussy, and you can see her vulva, but you can't see her vagina.

I don't happen to know any people who argue for doing away with "vagina." They do have opinions about words and punctuation and other things grammatical in nature, but none of their arguments start with etymology.

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