Theological misnegation?

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"Pope condones condom use in exceptional cases", BBC News, 11/20/2010:

Catholic commentator Austen Ivereigh said that although this was the first time the Pope had voiced such an opinion, it was in line with what Catholic moral theologians have been saying for many years.

"The Church's teaching on contraception predates the discovery of Aids," Mr Ivereigh told the BBC news website. […]

"If the intention is to prevent transmission of the virus, rather than prevent contraception, moral theologians would say that was of a different moral order." [emphasis added]

As usual in such cases, we don't know whether this was Mr. Ivereigh's slip or the BBC's.  But on the basis of past performance, I'm not inclined to trust the press in cases like this one.


  1. D.O. said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    It might be not a misnegation per se, but some kind of a phonetic slip conception – contraception, not checked at editing. I know, LL writers already analyzed such possibilities in details, so maybe there is another chain of references in waiting…

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  3. Army1987 said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    @D.O.: I hadn't thought about that right away, but it makes perfect sense.

  4. Lee Morgan said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 10:22 pm


    But isn't contraception a lexical negation of conception?

  5. Kimberly Belcher said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

    I can now die happy – there's been a Language Log post entitled "Theological misnegation?"

    Thanks, myl.

  6. D.O. said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:05 am

    But isn't contraception a lexical negation of conception?

    I think, there are 5 distinct possibilities of what have happened:
    1) whoever made a mistake selected contraception as the target word, but then changed polarity wrong number of times 2) whoever made a mistake selected conception as the target word, applied correct number of negations, but then had a slip of tongue (or fingers) and substituted contraception instead 3) whoever made a mistake selected conception as a target word then applied incorrect number of polarity changes, one of which was conception to contraception change (seems dubious to me)4) whoever made a mistake thought about contrasting construction rather than or rather than prevent, but complemented it with a wrong word maybe because of miscalculation in the number of polarity changes or again because of the contraception/conception confusion5) neither of previous 4 even roughly describe the real thought process.

    [(myl) I agree that the error is one of word choice — probably contraception in place of conception though perhaps prevent in place of (say) provide — and that there are many possible instigating factors. So at some level, this is a "Fay-Cutler malapropism", a word-substitution error triggered by phonological, semantic, or pragmatic similarity. This category of error overlaps with errors of polarity or negation: some misnegations involve lexical substitutions (e.g. less for more) while others don't; some word-substitution errors involve negation, scalar directions, etc., but most (e.g. conduct for concoct) don't.

    In this case, I was less interested in the type of error than in its source.]

  7. J. Goard said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    @Lee Morgan:

    That depends upon how far one is willing to stretch the concept of negation. Contraception is '(an action or process) against conception', which is neither the opposite in a complementary sense ('non-conception', 'failure to conceive'), nor a reversal sense ('de-conception', i.e. 'miscarriage'), nor a polar sense (the thing in the world that is most different from conception along some scale, if that's even sensible).

    Calling the prevention relation a type of opposite has some intuitive plausibility, I'll admit, but it becomes more problematic the more you think about is. I think most people wouldn't say that antipyretics are the opposite of a fever, for example.

  8. Fred said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    Perhaps it started as "If the intention is to prevent transmission of the virus, rather than contraception, …", and was then miscorrected in order to introduce a verb into the second clause (giving them a sort of parallel structure).

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    When I worked after school in a drugstore back in the late 40s, condoms were labeled "Sold for the prevention of disease only." Everybody knew better, but this was what salesclerks were required to determine. Plus ça change ….

  10. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Indeed, all of the ghits for theological misnegation are references to this post. Yet another amazing example of the unfettered human capacity for free expression and comprehension of thoughts.

  11. Sissy said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 2:54 am

    Phew! I initially read that as Theological Miscegenation, which is a whole other kettle of fish!

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