A cargo cult is a religious practice based on imitating the behavior of more-advanced societies, without understanding its true nature or purpose, in the hope of receiving the apparent benefit of that behavior. Members of cargo cults — which have sprung up in a number of tribal societies following their interaction with modern cultures — build crude imitations of airstrips, radio towers, and the like, under the misapprehension that it’s these rituals that magically attract airplanes full of material wealth (“cargo”) to land and deliver their goods.
The term has since been applied in other contexts. Richard Feynman spoke about “cargo cult science”, when scientists conduct research that superficially resembles the scientific method without any of the integrity and rigor that makes it a successful method of inquiry, and there is also “cargo cult programming”, when programmers include code in their programs without understanding its purpose, merely because they’ve seen it used in examples or the programs of more experienced coders.
I now want to extend the metaphor to a certain sort of error in language use. Call it cargo cult language: using words or phrases, usually incorrectly, with no understanding of the origin of the words or their exact meaning, merely on the basis of having heard such constructions elsewhere in similar contexts.
Do not mistake my point for pedantic railing against mangled grammar, spelling, or pronunciation. Before I elaborate or provide examples, I’d like to distinguish the thing I’m talking about from two related, but subtly different, problems.
The first is errors of grammar or usage: their/there/they’re; would of/could of/should of; can’t hardly; alot. In each case, the speaker or writer almost certainly knows what they mean to say; they are simply mistaken about the correct way to say it. Furthermore, the reader or listener is also unlikely to be confused for any longer than the time it takes to do a mental double-take at the misused word; the context almost always resolves the ambiguities created by such errors.
The second related but distinct problem is the sort of thing which George Orwell criticized in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell wrote of stale, overused phrases, clichés, and metaphors which take the place of clear language, and which can “construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent”. In such cases, the speaker or writer either has no precise meaning in mind, or wants, in some vague way, to say something, but lacks the command of language to say it clearly, without resorting to prefabricated phrases which convey nothing of substance.
What am I talking about, then?
These three words are often confused, with “comprise” being the most common offender as an erroneous replacement for the other two. Phrases like “is comprised of” are obviously wrong, but there are also constructions such as “X comprises Y”, which are grammatically correct, but whose meaning is inverted if the writer’s intended meaning was “compose”. The cause of this sort of error seems to be a perception that “comprise” is a “fancier” word that has the same meaning as the other two.
These two words don’t mean the same thing, but are often used interchangeably. Parsing a sentence that contains one of these often requires the reader to make some inference about the writer’s background: a scientist who says “precise” means something quite different than if she were to say “accurate”, but your average news reporter is probably not packing any special meaning into his word choice when he says that something is “precisely correct”.
Is the increase actually exponential rather than, say, polynomial, or does the speaker simply mean “fast growth”? It’s often the latter; people say “exponential” because they’ve heard the term used, somewhere, to describe fast growth, and it did not occur to them that it might have a very specific meaning. (We could also blame rampant innumeracy for this one.)
”exception that proves the rule”
This example comes closest to falling into the Orwellian category I mentioned earlier, since the phrase is certainly a tired cliché, but it does have a concrete meaning: an exception which, by its existence, serves to underscore the rule. A sign that says “free parking on Sundays” does not have to add “parking costs money on other days” because the exception proves the rule.1 The other usage, seemingly more common these days despite being quite nonsensical, takes the phrase to refer to any exception. It is clear in such cases that the speaker simply has no idea why they are using the phrase; imitation without understanding.
Cargo cult language can be distinguished from simple errors of grammar, usage, or style by considering the question: “What do you mean by that?” With a grammar error, the reader or listener almost always does knows what is meant. At most, there’s a double-take, a mental stumble as the erroneous construction is parsed; but the meaning is usually not obscured. Use of cargo cult language, on the other hand, can introduce genuine ambiguities and block comprehension, especially because it often isn’t clear whether the speaker really knows what he’s saying and means to say it or is simply parroting.
In the Orwellian case, the words have lost their meaning, becoming empty platitudes. In the case of cargo cult language, on the other hand, the words do have a meaning, but the meaning is not what the speaker thinks; or he doesn’t know the meaning, only using the phrase because he’s heard it said in a similar context.
In my experience, cargo cult language turns up most often in technical conversations, and I do not think it is coincidence that the term “cargo cult” originated in the context of modern technology as seen by less-advanced societies, nor that its other two most common uses come from science and computer programming. It is related, I think, to the phenomena of science as attire and fake explanations; an attitude of magical thinking toward technical matters that treats the language of science and technology as a sort of ritual, in which you invoke certain phrases to lend authority to what you’re saying, and where knowing exactly what the words mean is of secondary importance at best.
Cargo cult language is not limited to technical discourse, naturally. I suspect that most Internet debates are rife with examples, no matter the topic. In each case, it impedes comprehension, by making the reader doubt his understanding of what’s being said, or, worse, by creating the illusion of transparency. Frustratingly, asking for clarification is often unhelpful; there’s a clear loss of status in admitting that you have no idea what you’re saying and are just parroting words to sound smart. Thus “hmm, is that really what you meant to say?” is often met with absurd arguments to the effect that no, this phrasing is not nonsensical after all, these words mean what I want them to, and who the hell are you to try to legislate usage, anyway?
A reasonable position to take, perhaps, if your interlocutor is merely insisting on adherence to some grammatical or stylistic standard. The tragedy of cargo cult language, however, is that there is a difference in meaning between the correct usage and the wrong one, and a loss of accuracy due to conflating them. Fail to recognize this at your own peril.
1 There is also a secondary meaning: sometimes what at first seems to be an exception turns out, upon examination, to be an instance of the rule after all, thus confirming that there are no real exceptions and that the rule holds for all cases. “Proves” in such cases means something like “tests”, as in “proving ground”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exception_that_proves_the_rule) This is still completely different from the erroneous usage.