High redefinition

“I am not a drink driver: it just happened to be a one-off.”
Celebrity chef Keith Floyd, Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2004

Marion had never sung before in her life. Then one day at a pub karaoke, she bravely took to the stage, belted her lungs out and received an enthusiastic response from a crowd numbed from endless bad Celine Dion impressions. “You’re a great singer,” said one of the punters. Marion replied, “I’m not a singer; it just happened to be a one-off.”

Geoff was one of the impressed drinkers. When he got home to the wife he hated, he found her dunk and singing “My Heart Will Go On” in precisely the kind of way that makes you actually admire Dion’s vocal artistry. For him it was the final straw. He grabbed a kitchen knife and killed her. In court, he said, “I’m not a murderer; it just happened to be a one-off.”

How many times do you need to do something to be classified as a doer of it? Too be a singer, writer, painter or actor, for example, you need to have done more than once sung, written, painted or acted. But if you murder, conquer, discover or visit just once, you are a murderer, conqueror, discoverer or visitor.

The rules vary from activity to activity and cannot be completely formalised. Consider what it means to be a winner. Sometimes, one win is enough. The England football team is a world cup winner, in virtue of a sole victory back in 1966. In other contexts, however, we use the term winner to describe someone who has a capacity to repeatedly win. Often, which context applies will be unclear.

Of course, so much of language is like this. The precise meanings of words can vary. Sometimes we exploit this in order to put a more favourable gloss on events. This is surely what happened in the case of Keith Floyd. Floyd was convicted for driving three and half times over the legal alcohol limit. The result was a head-on collision in a narrow country lane. Luckily, no one suffered more than minor injuries.

Does that make Floyd a drink-driver? That depends on whether the sobriquet is more like “murderer” or “singer”. Context does mean that there is some latitude of usage here, but surely, in general, “drink-driver” is more like “murderer” (linguistically, not morally, of course). If someone if found guilty of drink-driving only once, they are described as a “convicted drunk-driver”.

However, despite confessing he felt “ashamed” and “mortified”, Floyd did not seem willing to accept this. He didn’t want to be known as a drunk-driver. Thus he shifted the meaning of the term so that it becomes narrower. So narrow, in fact, that it no longer applied to him.

This move is called high redefinition and it’s a common way of making credible denial possible. Perhaps the most common example is when people deny that they have deceived anyone. Normally, this works by focusing on the requirement that deception requires intent. Then intent is defined so narrowly that even in a case where it could easily be foreseen that a misunderstanding would arise and the person did nothing to prevent it, deception is denied because that was not the clear, sole and specific aim of the person accused.

High redefinition is the sibling bad move to low redefinition, the subject of a previous column. In our karaoke case, if Marion had come out of the pub claiming to be a singer, she would have been guilty of that move: broadening, rather than narrowing, the scope of a term so that it applies to the case you want it to.

The point about both high and low redefinition is that they exploit the genuine elasticity and imprecision of language for self-serving purposes. Often, a case could be made for using the words in the broadened or narrow sense. What is always objectionable and sometimes sly is when this change of scope is accompanied by the pretence is that the terms are being used in their ordinary senses. We are free to stretch the meanings of words if we have good reason. But we should not do so covertly and without good reason.

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