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The fault with 'fault'.

21 March 201205:52PMlinguistics

So I have this one friend (who'll remain nameless, but he knows who he is) who insists that the phrase "Everything is your fault" can be used as some kind of great psychological test. He hypothesises that your response to the statement, either positive or negative, is representative of your outlook on life. If 'everything' were good, you'd be thanking him and not getting annoyed at him, and so you obviously have a negative outlook.

Or so the argument goes.

This is pretty obviously not the case. The sentence ain't no neutral statement of fact. It's loaded with meaning, and that meaning naturally shapes your response. Let's break it down.

break it down yo

At first glance, it looks like English has two ways of using the word 'fault'. I like to call these the Engineer's Usage and the Politician's Usage.

The Engineer's Usage is the easiest to explain. A fault is an only slightly abstract way of referring to a specific defect or error in something. For example, "This machine has developed a fault", meaning "This machine has developed a defect". This is fairly straightforward.

The Politician's Usage is a bit tougher, and a bit more abstract, and of course, the one more commonly used. Its purpose is to ascribe blame and causality, as in "This hideous political crisis is all your fault." There are no easy synonyms, like 'defect' - the closest is 'blame', but changing 'This is your fault' to 'I blame you for this' is a massive shift, from a statement of fact to a statement of opinion.

(There is a third usage of the word, but nobody uses that because of reasons.)

This is where our claim originates, in the idea that there is some alternate 'Politician's Usage' of the word fault that solely denotes causality (and possibly blame). Which is a great foundation for his argument, except for the fact that the Politician's usage doesn't exist.

What we are actually seeing here is the ascribing of the 'defective' definition to a person. Take the following conversation:

Person: My phone is broken! (My phone has developed a defect) Me: Oh no, that's my fault. (No, the defect lies in me or my actions) Person: How come? (How is it that this state of affairs has come to pass?) Me: I threw it in a lake the other day for shits and giggles. (I immersed it in a large body of water in the immediate past, for personal amusement.)

Rather than being some nebulous statement of causality, saying something is someone's fault is an insinuation of defectiveness_ _in their judgement, character, or actions, in exactly the same sense as a machine develops a fault in its internal mechanisms or software routines. Exactly. The. Same. Word.

This is why everyone reacts negatively to the statement that "Everything is your fault." It's not because they have some deep-held negativity about the state of the universe. It's because you just called them a defective human being.

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