Thursday, February 12, 2009

Specialized Versus Everyday Meanings

In your psych eval, if you came across the phrase Substance Abuse: denies you might be insulted. It sounds as if the evaluator has decided that you do abuse substances, but refuse to admit it. It doesn't mean that at all, it just means you said you didn't. If the evaluator knew something to the contrary, she would include it: but tox screen is positive for cannabinoids. Denies suicidal ideation. Denies auditory and visual hallucinations. The evaluator is not going to write "none" in any of those slots, because she doesn't know that.

The income tax system is voluntary in the US. That doesn't mean you can opt to not pay it. It means you fill out the bill yourself rather than having the government send you one.

A better known example is that acute doesn't mean intense, it means brief, or coming on quickly. Culture has a different meaning in the social sciences than it does in everyday use. Actually, culture has a slightly different meaning in each social science class you'll ever take.

Words with specific meanings in a subject (in legalese a term of art, which is, I suppose, a term of art in the law) cause a great deal of headache when they move out of their own neighborhoods. Well-meaning people blunder, crusaders mislead many, and the deceptive misuse terms intentionally to manipulate.

Christian theology has its own pitfalls here. Personal God is often misunderstood.

Here's an irony: in Critical Theory, such terms are often seen as tools of
oppression. But critical in this sense not only has a different meaning than the everyday, it has a different meaning than its specific literary usage. Postmodern vocabulary (and its deconstructionist and poststructuralist cousins), is perhaps the best known example of using language as a tool of oppression.


Anonymous said...

I'd beg to differ about the word deny. It's a loaded term by definition. A denial is not a response to a question, it is a response to an accusation.

Otherwise, I agree. ;)

jaed said...

Even if an emotionally-loaded term in ordinary discourse is being used as a technical term in some specific situation, the base meaning leaks into the interaction. It can't help but do that. A medical professional who says "Patient claims such-and-such" is not going to be able to avoid having the ordinary association of the word - which contains the implication that the patient is, or may well be, lying - bleed into his or her mind. This is just the way language-using humans work.

The bleedthrough works both ways, too. I am perfectly aware that when a doctor says "Patient complains of [symptom]", he isn't calling me a complainer. Yet I can't help but bristle at such language being applied to me. Term of art or no, it feels negative.

"Patient reports such-and-such" is an unloaded term. It doesn't have the problem of bleeding connotation that "denies" or "claims" or "complains" does, nor does it cause confusion when someone uninitiated sees it. Yet the medical profession resists a change to such neutral terms and continues to insist on words which have, in ordinary discourse, quite negative connotations. I sometimes wonder why.