Skepticalisms

February 17, 2010

New words contribute to the growth of language, and “one who coins, uses, or introduces new words, or redefines old words in a language” is a neologist (from the French néologisme which derives in turn from the Greek neo- (“new”) and logos (“word”)—according to Wordsmith.org. In my neologist persona, I offer the useful word skepticalism as essentially a new word (apart from a few online misuses) and one needing proper defining.

A skepticalism (by analogy to a witticism, for instance) is a skeptical remark or saying. An old example is the popular instruction, “Don’t take any wooden nickels” (after the novelty coins used as souvenir fair-tokens and the like, following a bank’s issuance of some wood-veneer currency during the Great Depression). The saying means, “Don’t get taken by something that’s worthless.”

A classic skepticalism is the saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” The maxim holds that evidence should be commensurate with the nature of a claim. Another skepticalism is, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” Still another is called Hyman’s Categorical Imperative (which James Alcock named after Ray Hyman, who often enunciated the point): “Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained.”

I offer a couple of skepticalisms of my own. One is, “The person who thinks he can’t be fooled has just fooled himself” (see David Grossberg, “Joe Nickell, Autograph Detective,” Autograph Collector , April/May 2007.) Another—which is both a skepticalism and a witticism—is, “People tell me I’m too skeptical, but I doubt that.”

Skepticalisms should be distinguished from cynicalisms (to coin another word). A good example of the latter is Ambrose Bierce’s definition of positive : “Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.” Another (from Anonymous, not P.T. Barnum as often attributed) is, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”