Sunday, 27 September 2009

ancestor or descendant?

It's surprising how often peope accidentally use the word ancestor when they mean descendant.

Today an article in The Sunday Age said:
During the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, Confucius - "Kong Fuzi" in Chinese - was reviled as a "stinking corpse" by Chairman Mao, whose Red Guards were ordered to destroy Confucian artefacts and persecute his ancestors as symbols of feudal oppression.
I did a mental double-take when I read it, wondering if perhaps Confucian family corpses had been dug up and desecrated.

But on a second reading I think the writer has used the wrong word.

A while ago I watched an episode of the British televsion series, Who Do You Think You Are, a wonderful programme, and I'm reasonably sure I remember one of the speakers using the word ancestor incorrectly.

English Common Errors mentions that in an earlier edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J K Rowling made this error. (It was corrected in a later edition after many people commented on it.)

Language Log, in a discussion of the linearity of English, suggests that people might use ancestor as a word that covers both directions in time, ie those who were born before and those who were born after.

This sounds reasonable to me, since I've never heard anyone confuse the two words in the opposite way.


Papillon Bleu said...

personaly I don't understand how we can confuse the two.It is if you were confusing past and present or grandparents and grandchildren,isn't it?

parlance said...

Papillon Bleu, I also don't understand how it happens, but I've heard it so often that I think it must be something to do with where the concept is stored in the brain.

Maybe there's a place where the idea of family is stored, then the idea of one person being related in line to the other, and, last of all, there's the idea of who comes before whom, and at that last moment the speaker slips up.

I hope this doesn't sound like a really weird explanation, but that's how I always think of it.

Papillon Bleu said...

concepts...yes I understand.
This is my big prolem at the moment : being a French woman living in England with an English man. There are some concepts I was brought up with , because each culture carries its very own concepts.So indeed, sometimes I slip not lauhing when I should or even worse:laugh when I shouldn't. I can also use images and examples that don't exist here.
So, indeed 'concepts' could be a good theory.
But then, what happens when you have got the wrong concept in a language then transfer it in another one ( now you think my mind is twisted)? But for sure, ancestor is in English what ancêtre is in French= Those who belong to the PAST!

A bientôt!

parlance said...

Papillon Bleu, that's very interesting that the French word is ancêtre. I had a look at the etymology and in both languages the word comes from the Latin "ante" = before and "cedere" = to go.

Now I see the connection between ancestor and antecedent, which I hadn't thought of.

Thanks for the comment - it got me thinking.

Mary said...

Your post makes me think of the trouble young children have with the concepts of tomorrow and yesterday. I have heard children say that they are going to their grandmother's house yesterday. It takes some questioning to find out whether they have already been or are intending to go. Maybe time just confuses us.

parlance said...

Mary I guess it's got something to do with the hard-wiring in our brain that sees time in a linear way. Children maybe have a more rounded view of it, and see time spreading out from now, into past and present equally.