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The piano-playing fish

We were talking a few months back on how difficult it was to use language like “fish” but not also mean the various cladistic subgroups of fish (such as horses, birds, and piano players). The gricean maxims helped but have their limits, especially in nerd circles where the gricean maxims have been eroded and it’s a race to the bottom of trying to misunderstand each other as much as possible and as “logically” as possible.

Turns out there is a formal way to do it—to use a paraphyletic subset. “All fish except tetrapods” can be paraphyletically called “fish”, “all wasps except for ants and bees” can be paraphyletically called “wasps”.

This is a thing in biological cladistics and in linguistic history, but it gets further tangled up when talking about groups that are more fuzzily defined, like music genres. If you paraphyletically refer to rock in a way that excludes punk, what happens when a punk band finishes a set with a cover of Born to be Wild?

Ultimately, we still gotta case-by-case it and try to understand what the other person’s underlying model is instead of trying to out-logic them with what what you think what they’re saying should mean.