19 November 2010

and she opined

Such shifts in meaning based on an initial misunderstanding are common as the language evolves. Sometimes the derived use becomes so widespread and accepted that it’s pedantic and pointless to insist on only the original sense. For instance, not long ago we dropped our stylebook’s longtime admonition against using “careen” — rather than “career” — in the sense of “lurch along wildly at high speed.” The original distinction had eroded so completely that there was little to gain in clinging to it.

Call me a language purist, but I dislike the trend in usage where misconceptions about language become acceptable just because a lot of people have the misconception. (By the way, I have never heard of that definition for the word career.)

In any case, I feel like when you're just giving words these meanings that are very similar to other words, it just makes language more muddled and imprecise.

Why do we need to define bemused as "to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement" when we can use the word amused for that? (P.S. I got that definition from m-w.com's entry for the word bemused.) Just because people are confused and cannot very well distinguish these words in their minds (me included, I'll be honest) doesn't mean language should lose the distinction too.


M.C. Sommers said...

So are you saying you are a prescriptivist? haha

I sometimes think it's funny because English is in this weird place. We would never change math just because people are confused. However art changes all the time as a result of popular opinion. I never know where English should fall. This is what makes me reconsider my job as an editor.

p.s. The word I have to type in for your word verification is "womon." I don't know why, but I found that really funny.

Holly said...

I think it's more a matter of keeping language accessible and understandable to the masses. If we insisted on only the "correct" or original meanings of words (or phrases or whatever), no one would really know what we were talking about. For example, if you said, "She smiled ironically," most people would think you're referring to some Murphy's Law kind of sentiment instead of something more along the lines of "sarcastically."

Also, insisting that language not change is sort of a waste of time, since language will change--people will change connotations, misconceptions will occur and become the commonplace definition, etc.--no matter how much we try to keep it stagnant. It's just what happens when there are millions of people using it every day; it becomes a dynamic, living thing. There's no way to monitor and/or restrict misuse, misconception, abuse, etc.

I guess I'm a language non-purist, whatever that is. Or possibly lazy. But I really like seeing how language, especially word meaning and usage in general, shifts over the years and centuries to accommodate the trends, misconceptions, etc., of the day.

and p.s., I'm not used to stating my opinion, ever, so if this comes off as bludgeoning/attacking/derisive/etc., I apologize. That wasn't my intent or the feeling behind my words at all. :)

Darcy said...

It's all about laziness. People don't want to take the time to learn the meaning of the word or how to use a certain kind of punctuation, so they redefine it or say it's obsolete anyway.

Margaret said...

There are too many nuances in English to care anymore. After I learned "reason is because," I cringed every time I heard it. Now I have decided to ignore the rest of the rules.


M.C.'s pic is cute! My word verification is "acturs." What's up with all of these wrong spellings on your site? Ha!

Guess. said...

English is a vernacular language, picking up new usages and distinctions as time goes on. Many of the "rules" we use today that forbid certain usages (say, splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, or using "farther" for distance and "further" for degree) have only been in place the last century or so; before that, such usages were widespread and normal. Some such bans are arbitrary and add nothing to precision.

That said, a wholly descriptivist approach to language costs us the thread of its history and obscures some of its own meaning, making language a barrier to communication instead of its facilitator.

I'm fine with "careen" mostly because "career" (in that sense) has been obsolete longer than I've been alive. It seems to take a generation or two before a change goes from being a heretical departure from a time-honored rule to being acceptable usage.

A good argument against semantic drift (or maybe just bemoaning its inevitibility) can be found at http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/1609/ :

"Even if these newer senses become enshrined in the major dictionaries, that won't be much solace to those with a more traditionalist take on language, who would see the semantic drift as mere error. We're left with words that are difficult to use in either the old or the new way: if you use the traditional meaning, you might confuse those who are unfamiliar with with it, and if you use the newer meaning, you might annoy those who feel that the meaning is wrong."

Margaret said...

I love that Holly, Darcy, and I all commented within seconds of each other.

Amanda S. said...

I am not completely a language purist: I don't resist language changing, and understand that the change is inevitable. I just don't like redundancy within language, I guess. If language is changing away from redundancy, it has my stamp of approval. I think much of language change is motivated by elimination of redundancy, because in order to communicate well, we need words to have distinct meanings from each other. So often what happens over time is that one of these words drops the redundant meaning entirely, or the word itself is entirely antiquated.

William said...

The most disastrous examples of semantic drift are when a word comes to mean practically its opposite. Then there's sometimes no way to use it without confusing someone. Parboil; trim; splice; oversight; custom; dust; fast; seed; rent; quantum; weather; sanction.

Yet, even tho' the above grind against my sensibilities, it's worth noting that context almost always makes the intended meaning clear.

Jonathan said...

I don't think it as simple as calling everyone (everyone because everyone gets some things wrong) lazy. Most people learn language from context not from looking up every word in the dictionary. Most of the words we use we learned by hearing or reading them. This makes it hard to maintain precise definitions. Besides even Webster's merely describes our own usage. Though I think we each should try and go by the book, I think most words evolve slowly over time. We can accept that or pick an arbitrary edition of the dictionary and sound funny to other people when those definitions become outdated.

Home on the Grange said...

I love this post and I totally agree with what you've said. Also, it sounds like you've received some pretty awesome comments. I'll admit that I didn't read them all, but what I did read sounded fabulous.
So... instead of expressing my thoughts and feelings about language, I want to tell you about my latest pet peeve and hear your thoughts on the matter.
You can't skip a rock without hitting some teenager using this word to describe, well, anything. Do you think they really know what it means? Because I'm convinced that it's losing the immense importance it conveys simply because so many people use and abuse it.

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