I don’t believe in “I don’t believe in”

Every once in a while, a strange phrase makes it into our modern English lexicon that really doesn’t make sense. “For all intensive purposes” comes immediately to mind – a bastardization of “for all intents and purposes.” “I could care less” is another one – if your intent is to prove how little you care about something, wouldn’t “I couldn’t care less” be more effective? We use these phrases because it’s a phrase, and we don’t really unpack what the phrase means.

I am a language nerd, so I unpack these phrases for fun.

One phrase that really bothers me is the “I don’t believe in” statement. Now, this phrase is fine in contexts like “I don’t believe in love” or “I don’t believe in God,” because it literally means that you do not put your belief in the existence of love or of God.

But a common phrase is “I don’t believe in abortion.” This just sounds silly to me. Are you saying that you don’t believe that abortions exist? That you believe that abortions are a myth? Perhaps a better phrase would be “I don’t believe in a woman’s right to get an abortion” or “I don’t believe that abortion should be legal,” because the existence of both a woman’s right to abortion and the legality of abortion are concepts that differ between people on the basis of belief. (In the interest of equal unpacking for both sides of the argument, “I believe in abortion” sounds silly, too) The existence of abortion as a medical practice or even as an abstract concept is not up for existential debate, nor is its existence subject to belief. The topics of debate are its legality and morality.

Does this phrase bother anyone else? Are there any other phrases that really stick in your craw?


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