Irregular Emotions

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pigheaded fool.

Posted May 06, 2013

The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell devised a word game he called “irregular verbs” with examples like: I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pigheaded fool. These constructions provide excellent illustrations of the varying emotional associations of words. Here are some contemporary examples. If you like, substitute “she” for “he”, but the third person example is always emotionally negative, so nothing is gained by shifting the gender.

I am sexually adventurous, you are promiscuous, he is a slut.

I am righteous, you are ethical, he is a prude.

I am confident, you are vain, he is full of himself.

I am eccentric, you are weird, he is a raving lunatic.

I am fastidious, you are neat, he is obsessive compulsive.

I am an epicure, you are a gourmand, he is a glutton.

I am intellectual, you are pedantic, he is pretentious.

I am a leader, you are a manager, he is a boss.

I am an athlete, your are a sportsperson, he is a jock.

I am creative, you are idiosyncratic, he is peculiar.

I am socially conscious, you are a liberal, he is a left-wing nut.

I am conservative, you are reactionary, he is a right-wing loony.

I’m on a crusade, you are on a campaign, he is pursuing jihad.

I do quantitative easing, you print money, he risks inflation.

I am a freedom fighter, you are a fanatic, he is a terrorist.

My country has oil sands, yours has bitumen, his has tar sands.

My software has features, yours has elements, his has bugs.

My startup is pivoting, yours is trying to gain traction, his is having a meltdown.

These examples are psychologically interesting for two reasons. First, they show the pervasive emotional associations of words and concepts. Second, they illustrate people’s inclinations to cast themselves in more positive terms than they cast others, resulting from psychological mechanisms like motivated inference and self-deception.

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