Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Call Any Vegetable: Philosophy and Language

There are two uses of the word vegetable that are philosophically inapt, and which, as such, should cease to be used as they are typically used today.

1. Vegging out: This means to relax without any intellectual stimulation or demands. People usually use it to describe much of their television consumption. Since humans are not vegetables, such descriptions are not apt, however intellectually and spiritually impoverished one might be in such a state. Moreover, why would a human want to engage in activities that reduce him or her to the level of a vegetable? Recreation is one thing; vegetating is something else.

2. Vegetative state. This is used to refer to certain conditions in which a human being is severely compromised with respect to mental abilities. The term is never appropriately applied to humans, though, since human beings never cease to be humans to become vegetables. The human essence or substance remains, however damaged that poor human may be. Therefore, human beings should never be considered vegetative and should always be treated with dignity. This is because they are made in God's image and likeness--something not reducible to a level of functioning.


Heath Countryman said...

That has to be the silliest thing I have ever read.

Tom Hinkle said...

I am impressed at your knowledge of Frank Zappa.

Sarah Scott said...


Why? Language has meaning.

The term "vegging out" conveniently gives the person involved an excuse to remove intellectual responsibility and accountability (as vegetables have neither) from himself or herself. Our society is continually seeking and inventing ways of achieving this goal. It is a poor excuse to be lazy.

When referring to a human being as existing in a "vegetative state", Dr. Groothuis is correct that despite the effort to dehumanize the person, they still remain fully human.

This is important because the term reflects the desire of many to reduce mankind to no more than physical matter.

pgepps said...

A few years doing EFL instruction tempered my "linguistic reactionary" phase quite a lot. On one hand, it does matter how we influence usage by helping to give it currency. On the other hand, windmill-tilting is still (to speak in tropic tautology) quixotic. I'll go 1 of 2, here.

Given that the second usage has the sanction of medical and legal currency, despite its plain rhetoric of reducing human to subhuman based on certain accidents, resisting its meaning and insisting on another usage would be worthwhile, perhaps. What would you prefer to use?

Given the overwhelming currency in favor of "vegetable" for a person rendered nonresponsive to external stimuli, I think the self-deprecating undertone of "vegging out" with regard to states of torpor is not inapt. In a similar way, the little-lamented use of "boob tube" for television had as much mockery of the viewer as anything in it.

And given that "recreation" is a word from the Progressive era emphasizing the eschaton-immanentizing benefits of centrally planned exercise replacing "play" in a society increasingly committed to the totalitarian "good"--honestly, I'd rather see the generation "vegging out" than participating in "recreation."

Can't we just play, work, and rest?

Doug Groothuis said...

Words matter because of what they communicate, even subtly.

That's the point. The terms on which I commented are not jokes or insignficant: they demean human beings wrongly.

If a curmudgeon cannot be fussy about words, there is no point in being one. Yes, I know how some of you will answer...There is no room, then, for my kind!

I learned this early on from George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" and two books by Edwin Neuman, "Strictly Speaking" and "A Civil Tongue."

Doug Groothuis said...

Somehow, I remember that Zappa song from way back! He could be clever and he could be scatological.

pgepps said...

Curmudgeonliness makes sense to me. It fills a similar niche to prejudice (another ridiculously narrowed term, these days)--we all have them, and we do more harm by pretending to have gotten past them than by speaking from them and refining them by comparison. I feel like a bit of an interloper, here--which perhaps I am--but "linguistic reactionary" has been a serious enough part of my makeup that I feel compelled to evaluate, not just dismiss or "smile and nod" at, such an argument.

I truly do feel that you're overreaching the argument at the term "vegging out"--though if you could correct usage with regard to the medical terminology, you would likely cause that term to disappear, too.

But note that phrases like "vegging out" tend to occur in the context of a minimizing admission, like "Oh, I was just vegging out"--the "just" is the hint to meaning, here. No one boasts--or at least no one is esteemed for boasting--that they "veg" a lot. Compare, for example, the typical use of "veg out" to "work out"--people do seek to gain esteem from one of those, and not the other.

Given that human/animal is an equally objectionable line to blur, "pig out" would be a fitting parallel, here.

I'm just a curmudgeon about exalting modernist notions like "recreation" without considering their origins, too.

pgepps said...

oh, the Orwell essay is essential reading. Remarkable how that lifelong man of the Left has become so precious to so many of us not on the Left! Remarkable, and perhaps sad....

Mark said...



I thought that that was a typo on 'inept'. And then I realized that 'inapt' is an actual word! Thanks for expanding my vocabulary.

Jim Pemberton said...

"scatological": I love it!

Most humans have a tendency to reduce the classification of humanity merely to the observed cogitative state. Interestingly, the incorrect usage of the term "vegetable" is correctly applied to the observed cogitative state of both a completely mentally incapacitated person and someone watching TV.