What the word "dog" means

The idea that we can say anything that is both meaningful and neutral is nonsense. This is not an academic matter. It has consequences in the world.

Putting it another way, given that everything we think is conditioned by our situation in society, to which our education and networks contribute, we cannot make purely non-normative statements. The word “normative” here describes statements that contain value judgements; “positive” or “non-normative” statements are purely descriptive.

To step back a bit, in the history of discussing words, the terms denotation and connotation are used to distinguish between words that simply point to ideas or things and those that also carry indications of value. 

To illustrate: the common wisdom is that the word “dog” can denote a particular animal or the species of familiar domesticated carnivore, and it can connote loyalty and unconditional love. It might seem that context dictates what aspect of the word is or should be emphasized, so that in a laboratory context “dog” means the scientific definition. But isn’t the scientific definition an overt attempt to strip away the connotation, or replace one set of connotations with another? And does it, in a way similar to euphemism, succeed? 

Take for example, the scientific-sounding statement: “We relied on the similarity between the physiology of the human beings and domesticated carnivorous mammals to conduct a series of experiments on the mammals to determine length of time under water before asphyxiation”.

Restated, this is: “To get an idea of how long human beings might be able to breathe under water we dropped dogs into water tanks and timed the minutes and seconds before they died from drowning.”

I would argue that neither statement uses particularly emotional language. Both describe an experiment factually. The second statement uses less “neutral” and more specific words, substituting “dogs” for “domesticated carnivorous mammals” and “drowning” for “asphyxiation”.

Both statements can be rewritten thus: “We killed dogs by drowning them for an experiment.” 

All speech and writing have an audience, actual or potential, and the writer has a “preferred reading” how they would like to 

The preferred reading of the first statement is clearly, “We conducted scientific experiments”. The intention of the second statement is less clear cut to me, the reader. While explaining in less “scientific” language the purpose of the experiments, the factual expression of the details of the experiment suggest heartlessness. This could well be the intention of the author, in this case me, as the person who rewrote the original sentence.

The third sentence, using the word “killing” intensifies the connotative power of the words. Clearly the preferred reading is to instill at least uneasiness and at best condemnation.

Yet return to the first sentence, which supposedly has the preferred reading of high-minded scientific purpose. A reader unsympathetic to any idea of experiment on live animals would find the very idea of using such language unconscionable, since it can be construed as a deliberate attempt to render inhuman cruelty to animals acceptable.

It is clear then that the words “normative” and “non-normative” apply to the conscious intention of the author, not their unconscious intention. It does not apply to the reaction of the audience, who may be influenced by but are not bound in any way by the author’s intended meaning (though the principle of ridiculousness is a good counterbalance: the range of intended readings has to be within the bounds of sanity as it is usually applied).

It should by now be clear that this discussion of these three sentences is informed by the author’s deep prejudice against the use of live animals for experiment, and a general bias against the inhumanity inherent in what some see as the “scientific” method.

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