Strangely Familiar

My favorite (if one can have a ‘favorite’ in a set of hated things) mis-used phrase, by virtue of its ubiquity and the frequency of its use and mis-use is: “blabbeddy blah blah blah, which begs the question….”

I became acquainted with the phrase when I was in high school, working on ‘The Question Game’ scene from Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at the long-since defunct Children’s Theatre School, once half of the Children’s Theatre Company & School in Minneapolis. The game requires answering a question only with another question. A direct answer, statement or non sequitur forfeits the game. As does begging the question—assuming the conclusion in an argument, as famously in Voltaire’s Candide, when Pangloss opines that “Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality” (the standard example of “begging the question” and the one used in the Wikipedia article on the subject). But the phrase is now almost always used instead just as a way of setting-up a question: it’s almost certain now Clowney will be taken as the first pick in the draft, which begs the question: will Johnny Football go second?

That’s definitely the long-term favorite/most-hated phrase. But it recently lost the top spot to another, not so much abused as misunderstood phrase. One I’ve heard kicking around for years, but which I only just recently realized was being used in such a way that the loss of knowledge of its meaning in the wider public oddly serves the principle it represents (like René Girard’s scape-goating mechanism).

Familiarity breeds contempt. As with, which begs the question, the degree to which this phrase is misunderstood seems to correlate, interestingly, with its increased rate of adoption. In turn correlating to the level of confidence exhibited by speakers now invoking this phrase. I suspect its new-found popularity is due to its utility—it provides a less boring restatement of the truism that repeated exposure to a given stimulus will result in ennui.

But that’s not what it means—or at least what it meant. ‘Familiarity’ in this phrase means something very particular, not just acquaintance with in general but, Sir you are too familiar! As does ‘breeds,’ which does not mean ‘generate’ in a generic way, but in the 19th century sense of ‘breeding’ and ‘good breeding,’ referring to child-rearing. Not universally, but to the higher classes. And finally, ‘contempt’ means something specific too. Disdain, yes, but of a particular sort: the kind which leads to the unraveling of the social fabric, i.e., if you allow your social inferiors to address you by your Christian name, other infractions will follow, eventually resulting in the open challenge of the prevailing social order. Chaos will reign.

There are lots of reasons why most of us today (at least in the U.S.A.) would have forgotten the meaning of this phrase. Perhaps the most obvious is that the classless American society at some point dictated that we should all call each other by our first names, eliminating more formal conventions that acknowledged social distinctions. Out in the open. In theory proclaiming our equality. I’m hardly the first to suggest that social distinction may become more entrenched and insidious when it travels in disguise.

In a few places in our society, it still remains somewhat out in the open. Not to the level or say constancy of judges wearing wigs but still involving dress-up in ridiculous medieval costume at least once a year in a parade. It’s not the Society for Creative Anachronism. What could be a more obvious display of class distinction than that (in costume to this day still referred to as regalia)? So it is, somewhat ironically, chiseled into the collegiate gothic stone of the American university. Along with the colorful costume, there are less innocent manifestations of medieval style class separation in the university. If tenure is the distinction that defines the class, the rite of passage to that status is still called ‘peer review’. Like the phrase cautioning against extra-class relations, the real meaning of this phrase also hides in plain sight. Perhaps owing to the phrase ‘a jury of one’s peers,’ broadly disseminated through legal procedural television dramas, ‘peer’ seems to mean to Americans just ordinary citizenry, and the word has become innocuous. It does not immediately bring DeBrett’s to mind. But in the context of the academy and ‘peer review’, it means almost the opposite: judgment by a very exclusive group, the members of the guild. And the decisions by that group determine whether or not the judged gain admission to that guild. That said, among the offenders, I’ve also heard tenured professors say, “…which begs the question—”

About Andrew

I have a job. In a library.
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