Friday 22 December 2006

On complaining about the tide coming in

A journalist from the Observer, writing a ’fun piece’ for the Christmas edition, phones today to ask my views about the way some English words have become ‘loaded’. She had apparently read a piece in the current issue of the journal of the Queen’s English Society in which someone is complaining about the way certain words have changed their strength of meaning – like massive being reduced in power to mean ‘huge’ (as in ‘a massive heart attack’) or incredible used so as to mean ‘very fine’ (as in ‘an incredible restaurant’).

The journalist got the impression from the writer of the article that these changes in meaning are recent and novel. That didn't feel right at all, and a quick check in the OED confirmed the point. The broadening of meaning of incredible, for instance, is something that started, according to the examples recorded in that dictionary, as early as 1482. The figurative use of massive dates back to 1581. And it is the same with most examples of this kind. The writer doesn’t like arguably either (e.g. ‘Hardy is arguably the finest author to have written in English’). That usage has been around for at least a hundred years: the OED has examples from 1890.

The writer is against people loading words ‘with powers beyond their meaning in the dictionary’. If that was a valid principle – you must only use words with the meaning recorded in the dictionary – English vocabulary would hardly have developed at all, and we would have cut ourselves off from the kind of expressive richness we see in, say, Shakespeare, who was one of the best meaning-extenders the world has ever seen. It is also a misconception of how dictionaries come to be written: lexicographers record meanings as they change, and if there is a widely used meaning currently missing from a dictionary’s pages then it is a weakness of the dictionary rather than of the language.

But the writer was wrong, in any case. Factually wrong. The senses of massive, incredible, and so on are in the dictionary, and have been for some time. But ignorance of the facts of English usage has never stopped people complaining about it. Or, of course, perpetrating themselves the very crimes they complain about. The writer comments, 'The unloading of meaning from words is generally deplored as regrettable'. Now there's a word, generally, which does exactly what the writer is condemning in others. The claim is not something he knows about, for no survey of opinions about the use of these words has ever taken place. It is something he is wishing were the case. He is stating it as if it were a fact, when it is actually only a private opinion. He has, in short, 'unloaded' the meaning of generally to suit his argument.

Words change their meaning. To adapt a phrase rapidly becoming a catch-phrase at the moment (courtesy of the Bishop of Southwark): that’s what they do. They are there to help us talk about our world, and as our world changes, or our ways of looking at the world change, so do the words. It is important to be aware that the changes are taking place, of course, so that we are alert to possible ambiguities and misinformation. We need to know that generally is one of those words which writers often use in a misleading way. That is one of the driving forces behind lexicology, and why it is so important: it helps us manage vocabulary change. But to complain about words changing their meaning is as pointless as complaining about the movement of the tides.

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