By user2637372

2016-06-12 23:21:23 8 Comments

I'm not a native speaker and was wondering what exactly does "lowest common denominator" mean? I was always under the impression that it referred to something base that is shared by the largest amount of people, like sexual urges, envy, greed etc. So if somebody said: "the show is targeted at the lowest common denominator" I took it to mean that it caters to these primitive universal tendencies. But lately I have seen it used as an insult or basically a verbose way to say that someone is stupid. I never thought that the phrase was meant to refer to actual people and tend to see it as a misuse, but found out that according to some online dictionaries, this usage is correct. So how is it?


@GoldenGremlin 2016-06-12 23:25:09

Google gives the second sense of lowest common denominator as

"the level of the least discriminating audience or consumer group."

This sense refers to people.

@user2637372 2016-06-12 23:38:28

Seems like it refers to "level", not people. Anyway, from this question:… "I found the following definition of 'common de'nominator' in Oxford Advanced Learners English Dictionary; 2) an idea, attitude or experience that is shared by all the members of group - see also Lowest common denominator." which seems to be more in accordance with my definition.

@Jim 2016-06-12 23:49:02

@user2637372- But it's the people who exhibit that level of discrimination. Attacking an idea, attitude or experience held or shared by a group is essentially attacking that group. Like a metonym.

@user2637372 2016-06-12 23:51:44

And if I take into consideration the example of usage in your linked definition: "they were accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste" it seems like it can't possibly refer to people. The most general meaning seems to be: "something basic that is widely shared."

@user2637372 2016-06-12 23:53:24

@Jim Not necessarily, you might be attacking the practice of exploiting the vulnerability, not the vulnerability itself, especially if it's universal.The distinction between the attribute and the bearer is important.

@user2637372 2016-06-13 00:03:04

@Jim To provide an example: the fact that using sex to sell things is seen as something shady or at least cheap, doesn't mean that sexual urges or people who have them are inherently problematic. Lowest common denominator isn't always something bad, but targeting it often is,

@Jim 2016-06-13 00:03:17

@user2637372- Any time you say, "That's a stupid idea" you are in fact saying that anyone who holds that idea is stupid. If you are attacking the practice of exploiting a vulnerability and calling that practice stupid, then you are calling anyone who engages in the practice of exploiting the vulnerability stupid.

@user2637372 2016-06-13 00:04:58

@Jim I provided an example just before you posted to clarify.

@Jim 2016-06-13 00:11:10

@user2637372- I think your understanding of the term is not in alignment with current usage. In current usage when a show is said to target the LCD, it intends to mean (somewhat figuratively) that all people in the world have at least some minimum intelligence, many have higher, but this show aims to capture that lowest common level of intelligence. Of course that means that many people with intelligence levels much higher than that minimum level will not be interested because it's too far beneath them.

@Jim 2016-06-13 00:17:02

@user2637372- Of course context is crucial in determining what is meant. If the context is Trump and his rhetoric, then the intelligence of his constituency is undoubtedly the common attribute being referenced.

@user2637372 2016-06-13 00:21:10

@Jim The Oxford Dictionary definition: "an idea, attitude or experience that is shared by all the members of group," seems to be pretty close to my usage. In any case, I like my definition better and it also seems more useful. The popular usage seems to be good only for putting yourself above someone else.

@user2637372 2016-06-13 00:32:03

@Jim See also Merriam Webster definition: "used to say that the quality of something is poor because it is designed or intended to appeal to the largest possible number of people"

@user2637372 2016-06-13 01:07:56

@Jim One more comment. When I refuse to consume things that are targeted at the "lowest common denominator," it isn't because they don't appeal to me on some level (I do like boobs/am slightly curious about how exactly the murderer quartered his victim), but because I realise that I'm being manipulated. So when I hear "lowest common denominator," I don't feel exempt and I think that's the healthy perspective.

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