Usage question

I’ve noticed a somewhat widespread tendency for writers to use the expression “to paraphrase” in something like the opposite of its proper meaning. “To paraphrase” properly means, as far as I know, to express the same idea using a different form of words. But many people now seem to use it to mean something like “to express a different idea using a similar form of words.”

For example, in this (otherwise excellent!) blog post about torture, Andrew Sullivan writes:

To paraphrase Hitch: torture poisons everything.

Now, this isn’t quite right, is it? If Sullivan were paraphrasing Christopher Hitchens’ statement that “religion poisons everything,” he’d be expressing the same idea as Hitchens, but in his own words. He’d say something like “religion morally taints everything it comes in contact with.” That’s a paraphrase. What Sullivan’s doing is adapting Hitchens’ words to express a different thought: that torture taints everything it comes into contact with.

This problem isn’t as widespread or irritating as the now-ubiquitous abuse of “begs the question,” but it makes me wonder if there is a term or expression to describe what is properly the adaptation of someone else’s specific words to express a different idea.

Am I the only one who’s noticed this?


10 thoughts on “Usage question

  1. I can’t say I noticed it but I would agree with your judgment. I’ve read the phrase, “as so-and-so said in another context …” Though I’m not sure that quite does the work you’re wanting it to do.

  2. I haven’t seen it myself, but I think what they mean is something like: “Shorter Hitch: torture poisons everything,” where the locution “shorter” is a stand in for “this is my condensed take on what this person is really saying.” I’ve seen Atrios and other political commentators do this quite a bit.

    That said, they are still misusing “paraphrase”; you’re right.

  3. I’ve noticed this as well. It jarred me when I originally heard it. But it does seem that as a convention, you can tell that you might be hearing a clever use of some of someone’s words if the term that is used is “to paraphrase so-and-so” and the quotation is brief. The convention seems defined enough that it doesn’t bother me. If want to use the term “paraphrase” in its original sense, I will likely talk of a paraphrase of a work, and not the person who said or wrote the original.

    The newer use might fit well within the etymology of the word as well. The Greek means “to speak beside.” Amplifications and additions are considered paraphrases already.

    Looking this up I find that a “paraphrast” is one who paraphrases. I wonder if this makes Hitchens a “paraphrand.”

  4. Camassia

    Back in the day, that sort of thing was prefaced by, “To coin a phrase…” and the author would hope the reader would recognize the source. I don’t know how you’d put it if you actually wanted to mention the other author’s name. But then again, is there any big reason to do so?

  5. Lee

    It only catches comments with URLs in them (you should see–or rather you shouldn’t see–all the gross stuff that ends up in the filter).

    I try to approve anything legit caught in the filter at the end of the day.

    Here’s the definition of paraphrase from the link you provided:

    –noun 1. a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clearness; rewording.
    2. the act or process of restating or rewording.
    –verb (used with object) 3. to render the meaning of in a paraphrase: to paraphrase a technical paper for lay readers.
    –verb (used without object) 4. to make a paraphrase or paraphrases.

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