Begging the Question


All languages evolve and we English-speakers claim to be proud of the speed and agility with which our language does it. We have a word for almost everything, usually half-a-dozen at least. If we lack a word we pinch one from someone else – pied-à-terre, schadenfreude and bimbo come to mind.

But sometimes something that’s just plain wrong gets used so often that, through usage, it becomes right. That’s not useful evolution. That’s just plain ignorance working hand-in-glove with sloppiness. I’m thinking of two egregious examples at the moment.

The first is ‘begging the question’, which means ‘including the conclusion of an argument in the premise’. Nowadays it is much more commonly used to mean ‘causing the question to be asked’. According to Wikipedia (to whom I urge all users to donate money from time to time) the misuse arises from a change in the meaning of the Latin word petitio over time.

The second is harder to understand. People are saying ‘one cannot underestimate…’ when they mean ‘one cannot overestimate’ and vice versa. I’m not sure how this has crept into the language, like a mischievously misplaced apostrophe, but I suspect people think they’re saying ‘one should not underestimate’.

One cannot overestimate the harm that is done to clarity of thought and expression by the misuse of language. I beg my readers not to join the ignorant herd of misusers.

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