[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to language. It’s partly because I value clear expression, partly because it’s just my nature. One of my pet peeves is the habit shown by some to co-opt certain words and phrases in order to make themselves sound smart or virtuous.
One of the most common sins is the misuse of the phrase ‘begging the question’. Begging the question is what’s known as a logical fallacy – it’s something that sounds reasonable, but uses false logic to achieve its argument. Where begging the question is concerned, the logical flaw is in the assumption behind the question. The stock example of this tactic is of a courtroom lawyer who asks the defendant, “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Now, you can see the problem here. There’s an unspoken assumption behind the question, one that we in Vanuatu know to be false: Quite obviously the defendant has never actually stopped beating his wife. The illogic is made even clearer by the laughable assumption that an abusive husband might somehow end up in court.