“I don’t know the meaning of the word!”

We’ve probably all heard them before: ”X isn’t in my dictionary/vocabulary!”, or  ”I don’t know the meaning of the word X!”, and variations on that theme. Language Log is notorious for fighting campaigns against the “no word for x” construction, used by poor journalists and politicians to equate lack of a term for something (often wrong) to ignorance about that thing in general. So I was surprised when I was unable to find a single post talking about the usage of the above trope. “The word X isn’t in my X” comes up with over 2.5 million hits on google. “I don’t know the meaning of the X!” comes up with another 2.5 million (although both could be used to mean literally not knowing something.)

Is this the same as “X language doesn’t have a word for X?” No. It’s not pejorative, for one. Generally this trope is used to intensify the quality of someone by negating the opposite quality: He’s fearless, as he doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear. Secondly, it’s generally not used to refer to more than one person. But it is similar in that it falls into the old trap of assuming that vocabulary items determine knowledge about a said thing, and that without a proper word, there can be no knowledge of its meaning. This is, of course, ridiculous. “Gravity?!” I might say, “I don’t know the meaning of the word!” Were I to jump off a cliff, I would come to a swift conclusion regarding whether or not I know what gravity is (as well as a swift conclusion anyway), even if I never learned the word gravity in the intervening 12.4 seconds when I realised that I was falling.

Seeing as how this idiomatic construction isn’t used normally to refer to insult and condescend an entire language group, however, I don’t think it’s as serious a sin. The only occurance in the field I can currently think of is in a copyrighted Calvin & Hobbes strip, where they are standing in a field, looking like a pair of pathetic peripatetics:

  • Hobbes: We’re lost, aren’t we?
  • Calvin: Lost? I don’t know the meaning of the word lost!
  • Hobbes: How about the word mommy?
  • Calvin & Hobbes: <shouting> MOMMY!

The joke doesn’t really transfer over in text. But you get the idea.

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