Sunday, August 22, 2021

When Words Get Stretched Beyond Their Original meaning


 On a Jeopardy rerun with Alex Trebek the question (actually the answer, given the shows format) was (I paraphrase)

Who resigned his commision in the US Army Air Force in April 1941 after President Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views?

The answer (actually the question--Why does Jeopardy do this answer-question thing, drives me nuts!) was

Charles Lindbergh.

Alex Trebek then said  Charles Lindberg's views on WW II were not politically correct.

This really struck me since Politically correct means, to quote Wikipedia:

a term used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense of disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. 

Wikipedia also adds that the term is generally used pejoratively with an implication that these policies are excessive or unwarranted. 

 But Alex Trebek is using the term to mean  incorrect or perhaps incorrect given what we know now or if you think history is written by the winners, then perhaps incorrect since Germany lost the war.  But my point is that I really don't think the term  politically incorrect  makes sense here.


More recently I heard an anti-masker say

We should not let some woke school board take the right to not wear a mask away from parents and children.

Independent of if you are anti-mask-mandates or pro-mask-mandates, this seems like a strange use of the word  woke  which means, to paraphrase Wikipedia:

Having an awareness of racial prejudice, gender prejudice, sexual orientation prejudice, and the past and current discrimination they have and do cause. 

I've seen it both positively and negatively.

The anti-masker's using of the term seems odd in that mask wearing is not a woke issue. Perhaps he should have said 

We should not let some Nazi school board take the right to not wear a mask away from parents and children.

The term  Nazi while not actually correct, conveys that the school board is authoritarian. However, he really could not use the term that since he was was a neo-Nazi and proud of it. That raises a question: what pejorative  term can a Neo-Nazi use when they want to say someone is  Authoritarian? I ask non-rhetoically. 

But I am getting off topic here- my real point is that the word woke is being used to mean Authoritarian which is not even close to its original meaning. 


The above are examples of how a word in English may change its definition over time, which is not really news, but I found the examples interesting since I saw the origin of these words.


In math do words change their meaning over time? Yes. Here are a few

Function: at one time `function' implicitly means a function that occurs in nature. So only continous and perhaps diff functions qualified. 

Sets: probably similar.

Efficient: At one time this was an informal notion (Joe Kruskal's paper on MST (see here) is an example of that), then it seemed to be P or perhaps BPP. For some its linear or O(n log n) with a small constant. Rather than say the notion changed, its more like it was never that well defined in the first place, and still isn't. 

Constructive: The many diff definitions of this word could be a blog post of its own. In fact, I thought it was, but I could not find it. I did find lots of blog posts that use the word constructive in diff ways. 

Elementary: Also has many definitions, though they are closer together than for Constructive. This one I did do a post on here


  1. "That raises a question: what pejorative term can a Neo-Nazi use when they want to say someone is Authoritarian? I ask non-rhetoically."


    1. Interesting! I thought that Nazi was a subset of Facist. Perahps there are diff here that I am missing.

  2. I respectfully submit that your analysis is not quite correct.

    1. Alex Trebek was making a joke. While "politically correct" does have the meaning you mention, which Trebek surely knows, he was intending the two words to be taken literally, amusing his audience by the contrast with the proper definition. Lindbergh's position was considered wrong by the politicians of the time, therefore was not correct, politically speaking.

    2. The anti-maskers DO consider the Woke as being authoritarian. I am a Lefty but I also consider the Woke authoritarian though I certain think a school board should require masks (and vaccinations) for students and faculty. Perhaps the difference is between "woke" and "Woke". The lower-case version is supposed to mean awake to the concerns of people of color (or something like that). However, the upper-case version refers to the Far Left people who are very authoritarian, wanting to dismiss people from their jobs if they retold an off-color joke on Facebook when they were 15 years old.

    1. Alex Trebek- AH, I am sure you are right and I missed that it was a joke.

      Wokeness- good points!

  3. The Classification of the finite simple groups theorem is tens of thousands of pages long. (At least currently; it sounds like people are working on simplifying it.) I feel that doesn't totally fit with what people usually mean by "simple".

    Admittedly, this isn't really a shift in a word's mathematical meaning; more a word that "means something different in math" (and there are a lot of words in that category).

    1. Indeed! Simple does not mean Simple.
      Its more like the `elementary' in `elementary particle physics'

  4. "That raises a question: what pejorative term can a Neo-Nazi use when they want to say someone is Authoritarian? I ask non-rhetoically."


  5. I don't think they were using "woke" to mean "authoritarian"; I think they were using "woke" to mean "far-left liberal."