As Kleiman once said …

My chance to be an entry in some future Bartlett’s:
There is no more destructive force in human affairs — not greed, not hatred — than the desire to have been right. Non-attachment to possessions is of trivial value in comparison with non-attachment to opinions.

Allow me to quote myself:

There is no more destructive force in human affairs — not greed, not hatred — than the desire to have been right. Non-attachment to possessions is of trivial value in comparison with non-attachment to opinions.

Several readers, as well as one of Tacitus’s commenters, seemed to think that passage (from the update to my post on why pretending that things in Iraq are going well isn’t really “pro-war”) was less clumsily phrased than my average sentence. But if it’s going to be my entry in the next edition of Bartlett’s, people have to start quoting it, so why not me?

Of course, it won’t really have entered the ideosphere until the folk process takes over and people start slightly misquoting it, in ways that make it pithier and more memorable. Recall that Churchill never actually promised “blood, sweat, and tears”: the original phrase was “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”.

I’m actually pretty pleased with the passage above, but it isn’t quite right. “Of trivial value,” for example, could definitely be improved. So go ahead: misquote me.

Update As expected, lots of useful feedback.

Here are two proposed revisions, either one, I think, stronger than the original. Please keep the edits coming.

Nothing in the world is more destructive — not greed, not hatred — than the desire to have been right. Attachment to possessions is a trifle compared with attachment to opinions.

Nothing in human affairs is more destructive than the desire to have been right. Neither greed nor hatred can compete with a man’s attachment to his old opinions.

Another reader points out that while misquotation does indeed indicated acceptance, misattribution is an even stonger indicator. He mentions Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill as (in Yogi Berra’s phrase) having said many things they didn’t say. The aphorism above doesn’t really sound much like any of them: Franklin would have applauded the sentiment, but would have put it differently.

But I look forward to seeing some version of the text attributed to Gandhi.

Another “ness” monster

“Credulousness” for “credulity.”

Eugene Volokh seems to be quoting Clayton Cramer, but I can’t find the monster in the Cramer post.

Update Eugene reports that he was quoting the original title — since changed — of the Cramer post. He also points out that “credulousness” is attested as far back as 1598, only half a century after the first recorded appearance of “credulity.” Isn’t it amazing that they were writing English that barbarously while Shakespreare was still alive?

More sightings of the “ness” monster

A reader offers the following, all from internet sites:

“frivolousness” for “frivolity”

“tediousness” for “tedium”

“audaciousness” for “audacity”

and — my favorite ever, I think:

“zealousness” for “zeal.”

Keep those emails coming. I’d like to try for a comprehensive list.

On Memes

One of Kevin Drum’s commenters asks whether “meme” isn’t just an unnecessarily fancy way of saying “idea.” Kevin responds, more or less, that memes are “ideas that filter into a community rapidly, spread like a virus, and then just as rapidly die away. A meme that survives becomes something else: a concept, or an idea, or a principle.”

That may be one usage of the word, but it’s not the original one from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. To call an idea or other cultural unit (e.g., habit, practice, phrase, genre, value, norm, joke, style) a “meme” isn’t to evaluate it as transient, or to evaluate it at all; it’s to consider it as a self-replicating unit and think about how it does, or doesn’t, survive and expand in the face of competition from other cultural units.

Dawkins was trying to invent a form of cultural analysis analogous to population genetics, in which the focus is not on the validity or other intrinsic characteristics of the cultural unit in question but rather on its “fitness” for its cultural environment.

The best recent example I’ve seen of this form of analysis was Matthew Yglesias’s insight that consequentialism, while in many ways an attractive form of moral analysis, has difficulty flourishing within the enviornment of professional philosophy because it downplays the importance of the sort of thinking philosophers do, as opposed to the sort of thinking economists, engineers, scientists, and administrators do. Therefore, a philosopher who talks himself into consequentialism is going to have a hard time publishing philosophy papers about it, and will either cease to be a philosopher or work on topics other than ethics. Like a mutation that kills its host, an idea that incapacitates the person who has it from communicating it isn’t likely to spread.

So in calling an idea, or a style of painting, or a phrase, or a social practice such as negative campaign advertising a “meme” I’m announcing that I intend to consider it, not on its merits, but strictly as a competitor. I can reasonably say, “That’s a dumb idea [or “an awful thing to do” or “a silly way to paint”] but an extremely powerful meme.”

To evaluate whether Dawkins’s proposal tends to be fruitful, or to say how close the analogy with genetic competition turns out to be, would be beyond my competence. But “meme” at least expresses a coherent idea. If we need a word for an idea or other cultural pattern that is spreading merely on momentum and that we predict will soon fade away, how about “fad”?

A plague of “ness”es

A headline in today’s Baltimore Sun notes that an official caught in controversy is being praised for her “candidness.” Whatever happened to “candor”? I’ve also seen “valorousness” for “valor,” “confusedness” for confusion, “cowardliness” for “cowardice,” “maliciousness” for “malice,” “recursiveness” for “recursion” and (more than once) “novitiate” for “novice” (the “novitiate” properly designates the status or the period of time, not the person).

Anyone who spots additional examples of unnecessary suffixization is encouraged to send them in; I’ll try to post a comprehensive list. (Note: “prideful” for “proud’ isn’t a mistake; “prideful” always refers to sinful pride, while “proud” is usually used with a positive connotation, even by those with a Sunday belief that pride is sinful.)

Update Some wonderful additional nominees: “piousness” for “piety,” “pretension” for “pretense” (“pretension” is a perfectly good word, but it means a claim of right or status, as for example the claim made by a pretender to a throne, not merely pretending that something is true), and “admonishment” for “admonition.”