Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Word Cop
'Calculus' (and 'Calculation') Edition

O.k., I know that pointing out stuff like this is annoying, but the misuses themselves are also annoying...so uh...that's all I've got by way of defense.

But ever since the generic term 'calculus' gained popularity outside of fields like math and logic, people have been misusing it.

They misuse it roughly in the way--and, I hypothesize--roughly for the same reason--that they misuse terms like 'ideology' and methodology'--that is, because 'calculus' sounds cooler and smarter than 'calculation(s').

Here's a NYT story about Obama's electoral vote strategy for '12. It's a fairly interesting story, so it is, admittedly, kind of irritating to pull out one sentence--the use of one word, in fact--and gripe about it. But it's just the most recent example of the phenomenon, the example I happen to have run across this morning. Be that as it may, the sentence appears below:
But, Mr. Nelson acknowledged: “The country is changing. In every election cycle, every year, every day, this country becomes more ethnically diverse. And that has an impact on the kind of coalition that you need to put together to win.” He added, “The truth is, Obama needs fewer white voters in 2012 than he did in 2008.”

Mr. Obama’s recent travel reflects his calculus. On Tuesday, he was in Colorado, at a high school in a heavily Hispanic Denver neighborhood, to promote his jobs plan.
 (And incidentally: I start getting really unhappy when I hear about candidates targeting voters on account of their race. I get every bit as uncomfortable if I hear that Senator Smith is targeting e.g. Hispanics as I would get if I heard that he were targeting whites. (Well, o.k...honestly, probably not just as uncomfortable. But uncomfortable...and I sort of feel as if I ought to be equally uncomfortable...).)

Here's the thing. What the authors mean here is:

Mr. Obama's recent travel reflects his calculations.

A calculus--like the calculus--is a method of calculating (including, prominently, the relevant notation). So in logic, the propositional calculus is the conceptual an notational apparatus with which we evaluate inferences for validity--the axioms and/or rules of inference (and, perhaps, truth-tables?), the 'p's, the 'q's, the arrows and tildes. Mr. Obama's recent travel reflects his calculations, not his "calculus." It reflects his calculations in that he doesn't think that he can win with the same voters he won with last time, and that he can/should rely less heavily on white voters. There is no "calculus" here, really, unless it is something like the method of counting electoral votes, and that's not what the author is trying to say. We could probably twist the sentence around in such a way as to make it vaguely plausible...but that's just a pointless semantic game. They meant 'calculation.' In fact, almost every time 'calculus' gets used in news stories, management speak, and the like, the speaker/writer means 'calculation.'

The allure of smart-sounding locutions is hard to resist. That's part of what gives us the current trend of misusing 'begs the question' to mean 'raises the question.'

Um. That's all I've got.

No snappy ending.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home