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Book: Discourse and Responsibility in Professional Settings

Chapter: Chapter 2: Taking ‘responsibility’: From word to discourse

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.26837


The chapter explores the concept, or rather concepts, encoded in the English word ‘responsibility.’ Since at least the seventeenth century, the word has been used in two nearly antithetical ways: meaning ‘accountable for something bad,’ and ‘reliable and trustworthy.’ This conflation is not due to any historical accident (i.e., two etymologically unrelated forms falling together); but rather to the complex and contradictory ways speakers view the role of being responsible; the word’s problems arise from our psychological and interactional selves, not from language per se.

The study discusses several fields in which responsibility, word and concept, plays a role, e.g. discourse analysis, literary theory, law, psychology, political science, and gender theory. It considers the relationship between what speakers use the word to mean, and their political stance, liberal or conservative. It then examines another term both speakers and linguistic analysts have found fraught with difficulty, ‘lying,’ and discusses the relationships between our difficulties in confronting both concepts, suggesting that they have something in common.

Finally, the importance of coming to a clear understanding of the word and the concept in all the areas that study human communication is considered: what constitutes ‘responsible’ communication, and what does not?

Chapter Contributors

  • Robin Tolmach Lakoff ( - rlakoff) 'University of California, Berkeley'