February 4, 2005

A difference of semantics

Brief entry inspired by Atrios misuse of the idiom a difference of semantics. This is my personal bugaboo, so bear with me.

Igor Mel'čuk was one of my profs in Montreal, and he used to tell this joke, which, I guess, makes a bit more sense in Russian:

A man walks into a doctor's office and demands to be castrated. The doctor says, reasonably enough, that he doesn't do that sort of thing, and besides, why would the guy want to be castrated. To this the man whips out a gun and demands that the doctor castrate him or else. So, the doctor, forced at gunpoint, agrees to do it. He puts the man under and castrates him.

When the man wakes up, the doctor says, "Well, I did what you asked. But why on earth do you want to be castrated."

The man replies, "Well, you see, I have this Jewish girlfriend, and she won't do it with me unless I've been castrated. "

"Don't you mean circumcised?"

The man thinks about it for a moment and says, "Well, doctor, don't you think that's just a difference of semantics?"

The point is that semantic distinctions are terribly important. Most people use the phrase "a difference of semantics" to mean the exact opposite, when two things make no semantic difference.

Posted 2005/02/04 13:42 (Fri) | TrackBack