The original cargo cults were religions that appeared in the South Pacific after vast amounts of cargo were brought in, mostly during the World Wars. The islanders then tried to keep the cargo coming in by sympathetic magic. Richard Feynman referred to Cargo Cult Science as being something that imitates the superficial appearance, but not the inner workings, of actual science. The analogous Cargo Cult Programming is also known to any experienced programmer. It’s one of my favorite memes; I’ve observed Cargo Cult Business Administration and Cargo Cult Politics in action many times.

Now the always-interesting Language Log confirms yet another thing I had suspected: Cargo Cult Linguistics.

…I think it’s fair to call this “cargo cult linguistics”. Just as some post-war islanders in the South Pacific engaged in ritual imitations of the airstrip activities of foreign armies, in the belief these actions would bring them cargo, so some post-war philosophers in Paris engaged in ritual imitations of the analytic practices of linguists, in the belief that these actions would bring them insight. The islanders carved wooden radio sets and sat mumbling in imitation control towers; the philosophers invented semiotic terminology and sat disputing in Parisian cafes. And just as the failure of cargo to arrive as expected led to social crises and theological reformations in the South Seas, the failure of stable insight to emerge in Paris led to “rapid changes in theory” and to “mobile” concepts expressed in an increasingly opaque style.