Cargo Cult Language

by Said Achmiz4 min read5th Feb 201244 comments


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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”.


”exponential increase”

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”. ( This is still completely different from the erroneous usage.


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44 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:17 AM
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This really just seems to be linguistic pedantry/elitism disguised as trying to make a good point. Almost none of these situations ever lead to misunderstandings, and it seems like you're just annoyed that people use words differently than the dictionary definition tells them to.

I've never had a misunderstanding involving any of the OP's examples, except the one about exceptions. (And what does that prove?) I've actually had several arguments that went like this:

Interlocutor: [generalization] Me: But what about [exception]? Interlocutor: That's the exception that proves the rule.

My citing of an exception seemed in no way to weaken my interlocutor's confidence. Was this because the "exception" cliché was just a cached phrase that stepped in to block a change of mind?

This is my thought as well. Every one of the examples given I would attribute to dialectal differences between common usage and the more technical and jargon-filled language used by scientists and science fans. SaidAchmiz even admits that for some of these, the usage he doesn't like is more common, which is a big hint. My understanding is that speakers very rarely adopt usage which will be misunderstood by the language group they typically speak with.

“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?

Isn't this exactly why we have the technique of Rationalist Taboo? It doesn't matter whether the meaning someone ascribes to a word seems stupid to you, once you understand what they mean by the word, and they understand what you mean by the word, you can move on. The best ways I've found to do this are to coin two new words (I like to prepend the word in question with the name of the person whose meaning we are trying to capture), or to always replace the word with its intended substance for the rest of the discourse.

SaidAchmiz even admits that for some of these, the usage he doesn't like is more common, which is a big hint.

Do you really think this is the case? How does this apply to "the exception that proves the rule", for instance?

Consider this hypothetical exchange:

Bob: All bears are either black or white.
Fred: Eh? But I saw a brown bear just yesterday.
Bob: Well, that's the exception that proves the rule.

Let's suppose that this usage is in fact more common than the two that I cited as "correct". It seems to be either false or meaningless. What is Bob saying here? How does Rationalist Taboo help us?

Let's suppose that this usage is in fact more common than the two that I cited as "correct". It seems to be either false or meaningless. What is Bob saying here?

You said in the OP that the more common usage takes the phrase to refer to any exception. So from that, Bob probably means that the brown bear you saw is an exception.

How does Rationalist Taboo help us?

Seeing as how Bob probably means that the brown bear is an exception, his argument is poor. So I would then say something like, "since you agree that there is an exception, you should agree that not all bears are black or white". If he disagrees, then he isn't using the common meaning after all and I would ask him to taboo the phrase "exception that proves the rule" to find out what he does mean.

It doesn't matter whether the meaning someone ascribes to a word seems stupid to you

Yes, it does.

I think that was an unfair clipping. The context of that quote was the OP's statement about the usefulness of getting clarification of language usage.

My point is that having to play rationalist taboo is still much worse then not having to play it.

Well said. This is basically my own thought as well.

[-][anonymous]9y 3

Every dictionary I can find gives one definition of "comprise" as a synonym for compose or constitute. For example:

Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 [synonym for compose, constitute] is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up.


My intention was not so much to claim that one meaning is unambiguously correct and one is wrong — after all, an initially "wrong" meaning can become "right" through usage. (For what it's worth, contradicts your claim of a consensus while acknowledging the controversy.) The point, rather, is that many people use the word without being aware that there's any kind of controversy, or that there are multiple meanings.

Similarly, if you find some code on the Internet, paste it into your program, and it works (in the sense that it doesn't crash or break, and seems to do what you wanted), but you have absolutely no idea why it works or what it means, that's still cargo cult programming.

I do see how what I wrote may convey the impression that I was expressing an authoritative position on the matter, though.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

There's a difference between the two domains in that most people learn most of their vocabulary through context, at least in their native language (or so I imagine). Sure, one can still use a word incorrectly or use it correctly but without knowing what it means. But I guess I'm not sure why it's useful to think of these errors in this way. If I want to reduce my use of "cargo-cult language," I can't just notice when I'm copying and pasting code and then stop doing that.

I think there may be less of a difference between the two domains than you think. Copying and pasting entire blocks of code is one way that cargo cult programming happens, but it's not the only way. Consider the following example from C:

void main() is (or was, at least) a fairly common construction. It compiles, it executes. Many, many people learned it from their comp sci textbooks or teachers as such a basic part of How To Write C Programs™ that they don't even think of it as something that they copied from somewhere. But they have no idea why it could be bad, because it's something they do without understanding why. This is classic cargo cult programming.

But you're quite right that it's not trivial to just stop making errors of this sort. I do think it's one of those things where just being aware of it helps. I don't have any concrete advice beyond "think more closely about the things you say and write", but that's neither original nor specific to this case.

I once had a compiler that threw up an error at "void main()" and forced me to use "int main()" instead...

Yes, C99 specifies that main() should be of type int, and most modern compilers will flag void main() as an error. This wasn't always the case, and some compilers may still let you get away with it.

Do you react similarly to all instances in which people try to correct other people's usage? Or only some, and if so, which sorts? In other words, corrections of which of the following do you consider pedantry/elitism, and which do you think are justified:

  1. Spelling
  2. Grammar
  3. Style
  4. Cliches, awkward constructions, etc. (e.g. Orwell's complaints)
  5. Incorrect usage of terminology
  6. Other?

I don't mean this as a rebuttal; I'm genuinely curious about your opinion on descriptive vs. prescriptive language rules.

I'm pretty descriptivist. In terms of whether I consider a thing to be justified or elitism, it entirely depends on context. If someone makes a statement and your complaint about that statement is imprecise use of the word precision, then you are being pedantic, and not actually addressing the relevant statement. Similarly, frowning on people's (debatable)misuse of words like comprise serves no purpose other than to display your greater knowledge (ie higher status) of definition and minutiae. On the other hand, if someone tips lik thes wen triing tu comminicate I view correction as fully justified. Similarly, if talking about the specifics of a field where jargon is to be expected and understood by all parties, I don't mind someone correcting someone's understanding of bytes or bits, or whether something is an ape or a hominid.

Fair enough. The following, then, is a rebuttal to your top-level comment.

If you use two words interchangeably, whose meanings are originally distinct, then you lose the ability to use your word choice in this case to indicate one of the meanings and not the other. Meanwhile, your audience is no longer able to divine, from your word choice, which thing you mean. This weakens your ability to communicate effectively.

I am then making the additional, empirical claim that a common cause of these sorts of mistakes is people using words or phrases without being aware of the specifics of their meaning. In the case of word substitution, the writer is not aware that the words mean different things; or is not aware that a word has multiple, possibly opposed, meanings; or has no idea what a saying or expression really means. This may not be the only cause of misuse[1] of any of the words or phrases I mentioned, but it's one cause, and I think a common one.

The follow-up claim is that being unaware of distinctions between words (and the concepts to which they refer), or being unaware of the ideas referred to by the phrases you use, is bad for you. That is what I was alluding to with the last two links in my post.

All of this is not to say that in real life, if you made some statement in which you use "accurate" instead of "precise", my first reaction would be "Now hang on there, my good man, don't you mean 'precise'? Take care not to make such embarrassing slips!" I would — silently, almost unconsciously — quickly weigh the likelihood of you intending one meaning vs. the other; situate your word choice in the context of your statement and the surrounding conversation; and in any case we may well not be discussing matters so grave that the distinction even matters. Finally, if I'm still confused and I think it matters, I can just ask for clarification — though I mentioned in my post that this doesn't always go well, especially if you are in fact not aware that the two words have different meanings in the first place.

There is a difference, however, between that sort of communication and the kind where your intended meaning is completely transparent to me and where you are conveying exactly the ideas you mean to convey, with no ambiguity and no chance of misunderstanding. I am not sure what to make of the attitude that this is not, all else being equal, preferable to the other sort. (Note: I am not ascribing such an attitude to you.)

That being said, though, I would prefer not to recapitulate any of the standard descriptivist vs. prescriptivist arguments here, not least because I don't think I have anything particularly new to add to that debate. I only hope to have clarified that my problem isn't with incorrect[2] usage per se; it's with the consequences of this particular cause of incorrect usage.

[1] By "misuse" here I only mean "divergence from accepted or standard usage"; this isn't to imply that such divergence is automatically "wrong" in an absolute sense.
[2] Same here.

I think you may have a legitimate point but agree with the thread OP that your examples are poor.

You stated the source of my disagreement yourself: "Cargo cult language [can be recognized with] the question: “What do you mean by that?”."

[Warning, obvious statement incoming]

I believe that in most cases where someone says precise in a place where the word accurate would make more sense, while they may be hiding some hidden connotative inferences (as is the human norm), they do have a meaning in mind, the concept of accuracy.

Thus they can answer your question "what do you mean by that," although their answer may be missing some of the incoherent inferences they were making, like "in a sciencey way!"

Certainly they can answer the question. The indication of cargo cult language, as I conceive it, isn't necessarily that the speaker can't answer the question, but that it's asked in the first place (cf. my third example); in other words, there's a suspicion that the actual meaning of the word/phrase the speaker used does not match what they intended to say (because they don't actually know what the word/phrase means).

Under that interpretation, "it often isn’t clear whether the speaker really knows what he’s saying and means to say it or is simply parroting." is a false dichotomy.

The speaker can know what they mean to say, accidentally say something different, and not be simply parroting. They may even be understood because e.g. using accuracy and precision as synonyms is common vernacular.

In all cases 1-6 - descriptive is scientific, productive, interesting while prescriptive is without evidence, harmful and boring.

Downvoted for overgeneralization.

SaidAchmiz asked for an opinion and I gave an honest one. I may be wrong in the view of some other people but that is still my honest opinion. It is not an overgeneralization as I believe that in all cases, in all situations, at all times the descriptive approach is preferable to the prescriptive one.

The descriptive approach may well be universally preferable to the prescriptive one, but that does not make it more scientific, productive, and interesting. It need not be preferable in every respect.

Cargo-cult behavior may be summed up as "using symbolic behaviors when they don't apply." A cargo cult performs the symbolic rituals of an airport, when in fact there are no airplanes coming. The meaning of building runways and waving signal flags is to interact with approaching airplanes; in the absence of airplanes, the runways and signal flags are meaningless.

It seems to me that the critique of language use expressed in this post is itself cargo-cult behavior, of a sort. Meaning does not reside in words; it resides in people's interaction using words; and it hinges on people having distinct concepts to which those words refer. If you are speaking to someone who does not understand a distinction between "accurate" and "precise", then using those words distinctly yourself — and finding fault with that person for not understanding — is cargo-cult behavior: making a big production out of a symbolic distinction, in the hope of arousing a response which isn't coming. There's no airplane there; waving your signal flags is meaningless.

It is much more powerful for people to understand accuracy and precision as distinct concepts than for them to use the "correct" words for them. If they do not, the problem is not that they misuse words, but that they lack the concepts to hang the words on. Attributing the difficulty to "erroneous usage", rather than lack of concepts, is bootless.

It is much more powerful for people to understand accuracy and precision as distinct concepts than for them to use the "correct" words for them. If they do not, the problem is not that they misuse words, but that they lack the concepts to hang the words on. Attributing the difficulty to "erroneous usage", rather than lack of concepts, is bootless.

You seem to be implying that using distinct words and having distinct concepts are things that are entirely decoupled from one another, which I find puzzling. Two of the points I was trying to make in my post is that lack of distinction of concepts is a consequence of not distinguishing words, and also that misusing words is a symptom of concept conflation; and that these things are in fact what make word misuse a bad thing.

If you are speaking to someone who does not understand a distinction between "accurate" and "precise", then using those words distinctly yourself — and finding fault with that person for not understanding — is cargo-cult behavior: making a big production out of a symbolic distinction, in the hope of arousing a response which isn't coming.

If the concept you want to express is "precise", and the person you're addressing doesn't know the difference between that and "accurate", you nonetheless do have to pick one or the other of these words. It's not like you can just use both at once, simultaneously; it seems pointlessly perverse to deliberately use the wrong word; and the only remaining alternative I see is to haphazardly use or or the other as the whim strikes you. I don't see the advantage in that, and I rather suspect that isn't what you'd suggest doing either.

I wonder if prescriptive vs. descriptive is political enough that people are getting mindkilled.

I think this essay by Eric Raymond is a good description of the situation.

Excellent article, thank you for posting the link.

[-][anonymous]9y 0


(Even though my own view is that descriptivism and prescriptivism are to language as science and religious fundamentalism are to the world.)

There are many words that have different meanings in different disciplines. Complaining that people using words in a non-scientific context aren't using the definition of them that is common in the sciences is basically a status grab for scientists.

More specifically, I disagree that people use "accurate" and "precise" interchangably; they just happen to use them differently than scientists in a scientific context do.

Consider the difference between the statements:

  • The victim's description of the suspect was accurate.
  • The victim's description of the suspect was precise.

The former, to a layman, means that the description correlated well with the actual characteristics of the suspect; the latter means that the description was detailed to a high degree of granularity. This doesn't correspond to the scientific usage, and... so what?

That seems to me to correspond to the scientific usage quite well.

Random, possibly related comment: After learning the definition of the word "auspicious" from a school vocabulary worksheet, I then proceeded to use it exclusively ironically in my internal monologue.

Is the increase actually exponential rather than, say, geometric

Aren't those actually the same? Also, what's the difference between "accurate" and "precise"?

Agh! I meant "polynomial" instead of "geometric". Yes, "geometric" is the same as "exponential". Edited. (How embarrassing.)

So did you "really know what you're saying and mean to say it" or were you "simply parroting"?


In seriousness, I don't take typos / slips of the tongue / accidental word substitutions / etc. to be examples of what I'm talking about. As I said in my reply to drethelin, cargo cult language is one cause of word/phrase misuse, not the only use. The cases where someone corrects you, or asks for clarification, and you go "ah yeah, whoops, of course I meant X and not Y", are not cargo cult language, I'd say. I don't take such cases to make a difference to the point, which applies when people are intentionally saying something which has a meaning that they aren't aware of.

Broadly, being accurate is being close to the true answer, being precise is having low variability in the measurements. The wikipedia article has more detail.

I'd phrase it,

Precision is the reciprocal of the standard deviation of the estimate. Accuracy is the probability density of the estimate at the actual value.

Why the hell is this at -3 karma? Because "these words mean what I want them to, and who the hell are you to try to legislate usage, anyway?"

[-][anonymous]9y 0

An argument patterned of this kind can be tritely repudiated by an expunging admonishment such as the syllogism "are you trying to sound wise?"

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[-][anonymous]9y -1

Baloney. Words mean whatever people mean by them; it's not like the English language has some kind of platonic existence separate from what English speakers say and intuit. The allegedly wrong meaning of comprise has been established longer than you'd expect (heck, I've even found an instance of it in The Feynman Lectures). Now, go read at least two years' worth of Language Log posts! :-)

Again, my aim is not to say that using a word to mean one thing is "right" and using it to mean something else is "wrong" in some Platonic sense. It is, rather, to say that if you're not aware of what, exactly, the accepted usage is (and what less-widely-known usages are available, if any), and simply use words or phrases because you've heard them used in some vaguely similar context, then you will not be communicating what you think you're communicating, and that, furthermore, you may be unaware of the existence of certain conceptual categories.

Also, I see your two years' worth of Language Log posts and raise you the Less Wrong sequence "A Human's Guide to Words". "Words mean whatever people mean by them" is of no use for both effective communication and for using language as a tool to aid in cognition.

Many of the commenters here have taken my post to mean that I wish to legislate correct usage, or something to this effect. This is a failure on my part, in that I have not successfully conveyed my point, which I consider fairly straightforward, and will now attempt to briefly clarify:

Precision and accuracy are two different concepts. If we want to discuss them effectively, and also (this is sometimes overlooked) if we want to think about them effectively, then it helps quite a bit to have two different words for them. There is no intrinsic, fundamental reason why we absolutely must use "precise" to mean 'precise' and "accurate" to mean 'accurate', instead of vice versa. But given that we already have two words, is there any good reason not to say "precise" when you mean 'precise' and "accurate" when you mean 'accurate', rather than something else?

The Language Log article you linked in your other comment has this quote, which I more or less endorse:

And there are plenty of people of all political persuasions who have a passing concern about usage but don't find the diatribes of the right-wing critics particularly compelling (or the ones of the linguists, either, in my experience) — people who are genuinely attached to the distinction between disinterested and uninterested, but who are uncomfortable about using words like "permissiveness" and "the erosion of standards," and who are affronted by the condescending derision of minority dialects. As Lionel Trilling once put it, "I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language." But it's difficult to make a case for language criticism nowadays without irony — you wind up saying things like, "Well, I personally don't use disinterested to mean "uninterested," and I'm sorry that this one is going by the boards, since at a certain point I can't use disinterested with any assurance that most of my audience will get what I mean, but I for sure don't think it signals the end of civilization as we know it. What's for lunch?"