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Few are called but many are so-called — or so they allegedly say

Ideas

WORD IN THE HAND: SO-CALLED

Few are called but many are so-called — or so they allegedly say

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Former Kaizer Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter.
A SO-CALLED COACH Former Kaizer Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter.
Image: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

As much as I eschew social media, sometimes rubies and diamonds come from these parts. A friend I know as Mtu Huria (Twitter codename @ConverseChatty1) issued two challenges to me this week, prefaced: “Please help on these two things before I lose both my jaws.”

The first was this: “Have you noticed that people tend to use ‘so-called’ when referring to the real thing, as in ‘so-called car’ when referring to a car? Has the meaning of ‘so-called’ been reassigned?”

Mtu’s second complaint is, if you ask me, not unrelated: “Person A has been shot. Person B is the suspect. Which one is correct: either A has been allegedly shot by B, or A has been shot, allegedly by B. News agencies often report in the first form. In my view, the shooter is in question but the shooting is a fact.”

I am in complete agreement (as opposed to alleged or so-called agreement) regarding the second observation. The abuse and misuse of “alleged” is an issue I have addressed previously, but the so-called problem is another thing entirely.

“So-called” is sometimes called on to stand in for “alleged” and this is the meaning of the term to which we are most accustomed.

Dictionary definitions vary in phrasing but essentially give the same variations.

The Longman dictionary defines “so-called”, when used as an adjective before a noun, as describing “someone or something given a name you think is wrong”, such as “the so-called expert” who turns out to know nothing at all about the matter in hand.

The second definition, contrary to the first, is used, says Longman, “to show that something or someone is usually called a particular name”. The example given is “the health threats posed by so-called ‘mad cow disease’”.

The third so-called use is mostly sarcastic, when something is given a name that elevates its status, as in “Maggie’s so-called apartment consisted of one small room with a closet-sized bathroom”.

The Cambridge dictionary aligns with these definitions but explains them a little more clearly, elucidating the first “so-called” as “used to show that you think a word used to describe someone or something is not suitable or not correct (‘It was one of his so-called friends who supplied him with the drugs that killed him’)” and the second as: “used to introduce a new word or phrase that is not yet known by many people (‘It isn’t yet clear how dangerous these so-called ‘super-rats’ are’)”.

We could split so-called hairs forever, but I will include a last set of definitions from the Merriam-Webster lexicon, which divides the oppositional meanings of “so-called” thus:

(1) “commonly named”;

and (2) “falsely or improperly named”.

There is no way of understanding these definitions without examples. If I refer to my “so-called friend”, it should be obvious to anyone that I am being snide and that my “friend” has done something to prove that he or she is not in fact anything nearly approaching a real friend.

The quotation marks around “friend” incidentally, can in many cases be seen as a stand-in for “so-called”. Fans of British comedian Eddie Izzard will be familiar with the term “bunny-ears”. Izzard calls these the gestures used when people make inverted commas in the air with their fingers to indicate that the person or concept they are describing is not exactly what he/she/it/they seem.

In a 2012 essay titled My So-Called Definition, published in the Johns Hopkins University magazine, editor Michele Callaghan recalled hearing the news that “Jean-Paul Sartre, so-called founder of existentialism” had died.

Callaghan asked: “Does the term mean ‘known as’ or ‘called’ ... does it imply irony or doubt?”

Her sensible conclusion was: “Would you go to a so-called doctor if you were sick and a so-called hospital in an emergency? Or would you want the meaning of your life determined by a so-called philosopher? I wouldn’t. So for now, I will keep reserving so-called for its presumed meaning: something not what it purports to be. And that was certainly not true of Jean-Paul Sartre. I have no doubt that he created many an existential crisis and that there was nothing so-called about him.”

Getting back to my friend’s query, though the two uses of so-called appear contrary, the term is still used in oddly inappropriate ways. To use Mtu’s example, one would not say “the so-called car” unless referring to a vehicle which did not exist or was not in fact an actual car.

In either case, it would probably make more sense to say “the alleged car”.

In the case of a false friend, however, “my alleged friend” does not carry nearly the same insulting weight as “my so-called friend”.

I can’t really explain why this is. Just call it a so-called feeling.

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