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How long should we cling to a word's original meaning? (2011) (slate.com)
23 points by Tomte 59 days ago | hide | past | web | 40 comments | favorite



Two usages that Ernest Gowers bemoaned in The Complete Plain Words, written c. 1950, but which seem unexceptional today: "phenomenal" to mean "prodigious" (rather than simply "perceptible to the senses"), and "meticulous" to mean "scrupulous" (rather than "overly and timidly careful"). I think it's too late to save or revive their previous meanings, but it's a shame to lose those nuances.


According to M-W, "overly and timidly careful" wasn't its original meaning either; it simply meant "fearful". Both "scrupulous" (which is not precisely the same as "painstakingly careful") and "overly careful" are adopted meanings, not the originals, so why lament one and not the other?


Disinterested third party still works. I have no problem using disinterested to both mean lacks material interest, thus is likely neutral and also not interested in the subject matter depending on context. The framing of the example sentence sounded to me like it meant the latter. I think disinterested still works to suggest potential neutrality if you frame it properly.

This is true of quite a lot of words. Many words have multiple meanings and which meaning applies is signalled by context. "I run for exercise" and "I run this company" and "I will run for (political) office" are all distinct meanings of the word run. It is only confusing if context is not clearly signalled.

When I was considering taking up GMing a role playing game, my gaming buddies understood my interest in running (a gaming campaign). My father thought I meant pursuing vigorous exercise.

This kind of flexibility of language is normal and healthy. It allows for communicating many things with relatively few words, it allows for nuance, it allows for double entendre and for subtle communication that conveys one thing to one group but not necessarily another. This can be important for subterfuge, or simply for signalling information to a minority of people in public without completely derailing a discussion.


Interesting -- according to dictionary.com [0], fulsome is another one where the meaning that seems to be recently emerging, and therefore nonstandard, is actually the original (in this case dating back to the 13th century). I tend to agree with this author, though, that "offensively excessive" is a useful meaning; we have words for the other meaning, like "abundant" and "copious".

A lot of these I don't personally care too much about, but to see hoi polloi and nonplussed used in approximately the opposite of their original senses ... leaves me nonplussed.

[0] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/fulsome


You should use the word’s original meaning for as long as the intended audience will understand it. An article in the New Yorker should have different standards than a buzzfeed post.


How far do you have to go to find a word's "original meaning"? The concept itself is ridiculous.


The concept is less ridiculous that you might think, because other people could still attribute the "original meaning", or any other intermediate meaning, to the words you use. If that's the case, they won't understand you - and vice versa.


A pet peeve of mine is when a significant percentage of the population use a words' old meaning, but still some people argue like:

"A lot of people use this word differently now, so just accept that and go along with it!"

Well, a lot of people also still use that word as it used to be, so why can't they just accept that and go along with it?


Nobody does that. I've never seen someone correct "fewer" to "less" or seen someone get scorned for using "literally" to mean "as actually happened". Only the other way around happens.

When people say "go along with it", they're just saying the new usage should be accepted as well, not completely supercede the older one.


"they're just saying the new usage should be accepted as well, not completely supercede the older one"

You can argue that accepting both meanings may lead to dangerous miscommunication, so it's vital that one interpretation supersedes [sic] the other. Some people who are on board with that argument are also champions of new word interpretations.

Example regarding the word "factoid" right there: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9358604

"Nobody does that. [...] Only the other way around happens."

If a new meaning pops up for an old word, at what point does correcting someone's mistake become being a language nazi? When one person decides that a word now has a new meaning? One per cent of the population? Ten? I honestly don't know, but as long as it's not clear that the accepted meaning has really changed, I call "the other way around" plainly "correcting a mistake".

I'd rather not enable people who will stick to the first thing they have "learned" about a topic, no matter if it turns out to be mistaken.


Given the nature of your post, the incorrect usage of [sic] really stands out...

There aren't really any set-in-stone rules about language, the "accepted meaning" of something depends entirely on who you ask. Personally I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist, as long as I can understand what the person means I'm fine, I might even encourage "incorrect" usages if they are funny or somehow apt.

On another note, I like that you recalled and found a seemingly unimportant comment of yours from over two years ago that related to changing word usage.


As I hoped I had made clear, I'm also more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist. And I'm not against being creative with words now and then. I just wouldn't insist on every one of them becoming the new norm. My criticism is that even when mainstream usage is divided (so descriptivism will not take you very far), people who argue for changing the meaning tend to argue unfairly that seemingly only the people on their side of the divide count. All the others are just boring old prescriptivists. I, on the opposite, would rather go with established use as long as it's not clear that the accepted meaning has really changed.

About sic btw, it indicates that the spelling of a word is exactly the intended one. Even if that spelling is /not/ wrong (afaik). It was meant to gently draw attention to that spelling without giving offence.


> You can argue that accepting both meanings may lead to dangerous miscommunication

When could using "less" instead of "fewer" cause danger?


I was not until now aware that "factoid" could mean "small fact", so the person you were replying to was clearly mistaken.


I think there's a big diffference between correcting a confusing usage vs just adhering to rules to check off the right boxes.

No one is confused by hearing "less" vs "fewer"; but with "literally" it's a very different story. It's reasonable IMHO to protect clarity by objecting to uses that ... well, make a word useless by making it harder to parse which of two contradictory meanings was intended.

And that applies double if the word exists for precisely that kind of disambiguation!


"Literally" being used in both senses goes back a long, long way, though. My take is that when used in the straightforward meaning, it is usually pretty clear, and when used with the contradictory meaning, it is also pretty clear. It COULD be confusing if you use "literally" to mean "figuratively" and your very purpose is to clarify that you do not mean the thing itself literally ... but that's not what happens. The figurative use of "literally" is almost always in the context of exaggerating a metaphor. Example: "I literally died laughing" ... it's already a false statement, being heightened by the claim that it is literally true. Usually, if you see the word "literally" applying to something that's not literally true, somewhere nearby a heightened metaphor is lurking.


His face was literally blue.


Could mean:

- literally blue (painted blue or colored some other way)

- literally blue (skin blueish from lack of oxygen)

- he was really cold or something (exaggerated metaphor)

Or probably other stuff.

Like most things, you need more context to determine the relationship between the statement and reality. None of these meanings depend on the word "literally" it can disambiguate between two related statements but nothing in language can escape the idea of being used in a metaphorical context.

It always bugs me when people "correct" this totally fine use of language. We don't freak out nearly so much about similar words like actually, really, totally, completely, absolutely, etc being used in the same way.

It's no big deal. Metaphor is a core part of our language.


Or it could mean I was exaggerating the extent of his choking. Why even have a word to mean "not exaggerating" if you're going to use it to exaggerate?

>It always bugs me when people "correct" this totally fine use of language. We don't freak out nearly so much about similar words like actually, really, totally, completely, absolutely, etc being used in the same way.

Because of a) insensitivity to those who have a hard time parsing tone, and b) none of those have a metasyntanctic function that specifically speaks to how the words should be interpreted.

By contrast, we do freak out when people misuse deliberately technical language e.g. 0400 hours to mean 4pm.

>It's no big deal. Metaphor is a core part of our language.

And being insensitive to the needs of those different from us is a core part of being human. But there are better and worse ways to be human, and better and worse ways to make metaphors.


>And being insensitive to the needs of those different from us is a core part of being human. But there are better and worse ways to be human, and better and worse ways to make metaphors.

This is a really good point, and I agree. There are many ways to use language "correctly" and still end up being unclear. I am in favor of clarity of meaning. Irony/metaphor plays with that but good communicators can use them to have more fun an enhance a message.

I really like your perspective though. I need to fold that in to how I think about this stuff.


>b) none of those have a metasyntanctic function that specifically speaks to how the words should be interpreted

Separately, I think they do have that meaning in most contexts. "actually died laughing" "really fell apart during interview" "totally lost control" "he was absolutely insane" etc


My annoyance is "literally", where it is now used merely for emphasis rather than the sentence being a metaphor.


Etymologically, doesn't "literal" just mean related to written word? I thought the implication was that "literally" is like asserting something is true to the extent that you would document it that way in official records.


If I said "he is literally as high as a kite" that would pedantically mean he's a hundred feet off the ground, but these days "literally" just adds emphasis.


It's really very unacceptable.


Let's officially dump the original meaning of "beg the question" because it's a poor translation from Latin.


Agreed. While we're at it, can we also drop the meaning of "raise the question"? That one is a mistranslation of English ...


That does make sense; but the new version is a strictly inferior form of "raises the question".


this loss of meaning in words, of everything moving towards the middle, towards meaninglessness, is not purely a linguistic problem - without those subtle meanings, english speakers (or at least those whose primary mental processing is in the audio loop) aren't capable of thinking subtly

and that's a huge loss - those meanings, those concepts, are high level abstractions that capture critical aspects of human nature, and without them a people are less self aware and more easily manipulated

orwell foretold the loss of these words, though he envisioned it requiring force - the reality is far darker


Practically every other episode of Lexicon Valley, John McWhorter's linguistics podcast, is about how that's not what's happening.

http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley.html

He has a whole book about it: _ Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)_. Check it out.

Not only do languages evolve and change over time (and that's not a symptom of everything moving towards some imagined mushy center), but some of those "changes" are illusory. For instance, a pretty large contingent of people on the Internet seem to believe that English lacks a gender-neutral pronoun, because a group of people in the 19th century made up a rule that "they" must be singular. Since that didn't happen in our lifetime, we assume it to be a core attribute of the language. But it's entirely artificial.


> english speakers [...] aren't capable of thinking subtly

That's a little hyperbolic. Is there any example where a word changing meaning has left us unable to express something?

The meaning of old words change. New words are born. I think it's wonderful.


> Is there any example where a word changing meaning has left us unable to express something?

I imagine it rarely or never leaves us unable to express something at all, but it may leave us unable to express it so succinctly. There are, as far as I know, no exact synonyms for "disinterested", "meticulous" and "phenomenal" in the senses in which they were formerly used. We can still express each of those meanings in other ways, but we need a phrase rather than a single word.


What's the sense of "meticulous" that the word has lost?

Later

This was answered upthread. Thanks!


The use of "may" to mean "might" frustrates me. Usually the meaning is clear but sometimes it can negate the meaning of a sentence.


When can it negate the meaning of a sentence?


I may not be there. I might not be there.

The former, using old meaning, indicates that you aren't permitted, which is the negating the latter sentence that indicates a possibility of being there.

But "may not" in the old sense seems slightly weird, in the way that "permitted not" is weird.


[someone downvoted this but I am just asking this for information, not as a judgment]

I'd like to understand the prescriptivist grammar rule. (So I can apply it sometimes for people who might know about these rules.)

Under this rule, does any occurrence of "may" mean "permitted", and, therefore, a sentence like "it may rain tomorrow" is just entirely incorrect - has no meaning (other than that it is permitted to rain tomorrow)?

So that people following the rule never want editors to allow "it may rain"? (They always want "it might rain")?

Is a sentence like "I may have been a bit __(adjective)__" likewise nonsensical? (Meaning, possibly I was a bit (adjective).) Is this past usage also not allowed/nonsensical? What does "may have" mean under this rule, or is it forbidden?

Thanks.


I'm not a prescriptivist myself. I simply like having useful words, which is something I appreciate about the article in question.

So, I like the idea that "may" could carry that permissive meaning such that the strictest interpretation is as you suggest. But I don't like it pedantically in practice.

To be clear: "It may rain" isn't a problem because there's no confusion possible. I don't care about stretching words in that way. I just like the idea that the distinction is available for cases where it is meaningful.

If we lose the distinction between "Can I bike there?" and "May I bike there?" our communication suffers.

But "may" is beyond screwy today. Relatedly, although it's fundamentally wrong (not just prescriptively, but like my brain has a bad-syntax error feeling when hearing it), there are places in the U.S. where people say "might could"! See https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/3211/is-might-co... as on example discussion.

Personally, I'm a non-prescriptivist, non-pedantic, amateur linguist who like people actually thinking about words and using them thoughtfully and intentionally.


This was a useful response, thank you. I think I will only correct "may" to "might" if there's a genuine chance for confusion. I like the use of "may" as "possibly".

For example it's an easy way to say, "maaaaybe I was." (I may have been.) Whereas "I might have been" is about a conditional - it means something different than "maybe I was".

Come to think of it, our very word "maybe" isn't about permission - and it doesn't have the form "mightbe".

Still, it is useful to know what prescriptivists think, so thanks for the summary.


Language is a means of thinking and of communication. If the old meaning is still well understood by the audience and helps communicate ideas it would be wise to use it. However if it hurts, not helps, it isn't worth sticking to the original meaning just for the sake of it. Context matters.




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