Sunday, July 24, 2005

Submit Nobly to the Argument: Why You Shouldn't Use the Word 'Ludicrous'

I hate the word ludicrous. I never hear philosophers use the word (well, at least not the good philosophers). This is a word used by sophists, yes, I did use that word. Sophists are the opposite of philosophers. From reading Plato, we learn that the sophists could be hired to teach young, aspiring politicians how to use rhetoric to befuddle challengers; sophists gave these power hungry and venal young men "talking points." Sophists did not teach their pupils how to construct an argument, weigh evidence, point out contradictions, or search for truth. Socrates did that, and the Athenians got rid of him for it.

The word ludicrous is almost onomatopoetic. Speaking or writing the word mimics its meaning. Flustered ideologues--from any political stripe--smirk, wave their hand, and sniff: "that is just ludicrous."


With this speech act they shut down any further discussion. We see this word popping up alot when pundits or "strategists" get peppered with a series of tough questions that might push them to find flaws or inconsistencies in their "talking points."

The Oxford English Dictionary(OED) teaches us that ludicrous has a long history in the English language. The archaic meanings--senses 1 and 2 (see below)--retain the Greek roots of the word: sportive, jest, playfulness (less emphasis seems to be on 'derisive' aka contempt):

{dag}1. Pertaining to play or sport; sportive; intended in jest, jocular, derisive. Obs.

1619 GATAKER Lots iii. 34 Easty onely maketh foure sorts; diuine..; diabolicall..; politicall..; ludicrous, for sport and pastime. 1653 ASHWELL Fides Apost. 25 Both in ludicrous toyes, as in Childrens sports, and in weightier matters. 1664 H. MORE Myst. Iniq. xiii. 44 But he rewarding my blind devotion with a ludicrous blessing and loud laughter, I presently found my errour. 1668-83 OWEN Expos. Heb. (1790) IV. 281 It is not a ludicrous contest that we are called to, but it is for our lives and souls. 1709 J. JOHNSON Clergym. Vade M. II. 174 [tr. Canons of Carthage lxvi] If any one desire to forsake any Ludicrous Exercise [i.e. any theatrical or gladiatorial employment], and become a Christian. 1779-81 JOHNSON L.P., Pope, The ‘Rape of the Lock’ universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions.

{dag}2. Given to jesting; trifling, frivolous; also, in favourable sense, witty, humorous. Obs.

1687 H. MORE Contn. Remark. Stor. (1689) 428 But to entangle things thus is an usual feat of these ludicrous Spirits. 1711 ADDISON Spect. No. 191 {page}1 Some ludicrous Schoolmen have put the Case, that if an Ass were placed between two Bundles of Hay [etc.]. 1736 BUTLER Anal. II. vi, Men may indulge a ludicrous turn so far as to lose all sense of conduct and prudence in worldly affairs. 1778 R. LOWTH Transl. Isa. (ed. 12) Notes 332 A heathen author, in the ludicrous way, has..given idolatry one of the severest strokes it ever received. 1792 COWPER Let. to T. Park 27 Apr., The man is as formidable for his ludicrous talent, as he has made himself contemptible by his use of it. 1827 Burton's Anat. Mel. (ed. 13) Advt. 7 The ludicrous Sterne has interwoven many parts of it [Burton's ‘Anatomy’] into his own popular performance.

If this is what we meant by ludicrous now, I would like the word. In fact, it would be a rather charming word. Instead, it has metamorphosed into the following meaning:

3. Suited to occasion derisive laughter; ridiculous, laughably absurd. (The only current sense.)

1782 F. BURNEY Cecilia II. iii, The ludicrous mixture of groups, kept her attention unwearied. 1813 SHELLEY Q. Mab VI. 64 How ludicrous the priest's dogmatic roar! 1834 MACAULAY Pitt Ess. (1887) 321 The Duke was in a state of ludicrous distress. 1875 JOWETT Plato (ed. 2) IV. 380 Plato delights to exhibit them [Sophists] in a ludicrous point of view. 1898 F. T. BULLEN Cruise Cachalot xxiii. (1900) 298 This subdivision was often carried to ludicrous lengths. 1901 N. MUNRO in Blackw. Mag. May 659/2 Count Victor stood before him a ludicrous figure.

I find it curious, btw, that Benjamin Jowett's sentence (the famous translator of Plato)--"Plato delights to exhibit them [Sophists] in a ludicrous point of view"--is evidence of the current meaning of the word: "derisive laughter" or "laughably absurd." While most careful thinkers will come to see the sophists as absurd, this does not necessarily mean that we laugh, with a self-important tone, at their folly. This means that we find their reasoning to be flawed. Moreover, I have always admired Socrates' patience with dim and obstinate interlocutors, such as Meno (whose Greek name literally translates to 'I remain').

The phrase: "that is ludicrous" is evidence of intellectual laziness, if it is not followed by carefully reasoned claims that show why a claim is ludicrous. This is usually the fashion in which it is uttered, hence, why I this word raises my hackles.

As Socrates says in the Gorgias "submit nobly to the argument." Or, as Rod Tidwell says is Jerry Maguire: "Show me the money."

P.S. Check out Mad Sophist for a rather amusing example of sophistry.