I make another attempt to engage in controversy

time for jibber jabber

Yesterday, I tried to join a controversy on Language Log.  The controversy was a lively one and comments I’ve posted there in the past have usually drawn some kind of response.  So I was surprised that my offering was completely ignored.  Today, I tried again. 

Professor Mark Liberman, chief author of that excellent site, often posts there about particular expressions that are said to be jargon.  He then searches for the expression in some corpus or other.  If he can find the expression used by people who are not among those who allegedly use it as jargon, he declares the expression not to be jargon. 

Today Professor Liberman gave this treatment to the expression “low-hanging fruit,” which is said to be part of the jargon of corporate managers in the USA.  I posted the following comment:

There seem to be at least three questions that people can use the words “Is this expression jargon?” to ask.

1. Is this expression unique to a particular population? People who mean to ask that question need to see the results of a corpus analysis.

2. Do members of a particular group use this expression to signal their membership in that group and to claim privileges that come with that membership? People who mean to ask that question need to see the results of a field survey that analyzes the reactions people show when they hear various speakers produce the expression. So, take a sample of office workers and see how they react when their boss tells them that they are “going after low-hanging fruit.” How do those reactions compare to the reactions the same participants exhibit when they hear non-managers use the same expression?

3. Is the expression an awkward way of saying something that could be expressed more clearly in more familiar words? People asking this question aren’t likely to be satisfied with the results either of a quantitative study like a corpus search or a qualitative study like a field survey. Certainly the corpus search results could help them to decide whether an expression is likely to be as familiar to others in the speaker’s audience as it is to them, and the field study could help them to explain why the speaker has chosen an awkward rather than a plain mode of speech. But the question itself can only really be answered in the act of revising the utterance and recasting the thought.

We’ll see if this attracts any more response than yesterday’s offering did.


  1. cymast

     /  October 15, 2009

    I guess you couldn’t hear them nodding in agreement.

  2. acilius

     /  October 15, 2009

    Eventually a couple of posters mentioned it, which was as much as I’d ever expected.

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