It seems I have now revealed my true nature. I am that most familiar comic figure, the old fogey, the fussbudget, the picky linguistic purist seeking to sweep back sea changes in the way we talk. Oh well, I was never a happening guy. But before I fold my tent and creep back into the brambles of old age, let me take just a moment to explain why I care. There really is a reason, or perhaps four reasons.
First, about “decimate.” I don’t really care that this word has now come to be synonymous with “devastate,” which it sounds like. It is just that the original meaning of the word is interesting, curious, a link to a history now long past, and I hate to see us simply lose that understanding.
Second, there are some words that are really useful – or rather, there are some meanings that are usefully linked to particular words – and I hate to see us lose a grasp of those meanings and the way they are differentiated from other meanings with which they are easily confused. An example is “disinterested,” which is now routinely used as a synonym for “uninterested.” “Disinterested” originally meant – and still does mean, as some of us use it – “neutral,” ”objective,” “not moved by personal interest.” A judge is expected to hand down disinterested decisions, but of course a representative in the American political system is not, because he or she is elected to represent the interests of constituents.
Third, many speakers and writers, in an effort to elevate their language and sound significant, misuse words that do not actually mean what they have in mind but that sound impressive. A good example, is “transpired,” which is now usually used as a three dollar alternative to the two-bit “happened.” How important one sounds, asking “what transpired at the meeting?” Well, “transpired” literally means “breathed about,” so when one asks “what transpired at the meeting?” one is actually asking not what happened at the meeting, but what news or information came out – was breathed about – at the meeting. The distinction between what happened and what came out or was revealed is a real one, and hence ought to be reflected in our language.
Now, quite obviously, as Noam Chomsky tells us, every natural language at any stage in its evolution has within it the linguistic resources to say anything one may think. Hence linguistic drift never deprives a natural language of the capacity to express anything that could be expressed at an earlier time or in another language. So, aside from nostalgia for one’s lost youth, why do I care?
Well, here is my fourth reason, and it may be the most important of the lot. I believe that language gains its power not from linguistic bombast, from the piling of word on word, but from the absolute precision with which it expresses clear, coherent, logical progressions of thought. Careless choice of one’s words robs one’s speech or writing of that power. Let me give an analogy which I think is apposite. When a chorus sings a composition, if the several singers are slightly, ever so slightly, off key or not in synch with one another, the sound waves they generate with their vocal cords overlap and cancel each other out. Hence, an enormous chorus of mediocre singers, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, instead of producing a large sound, produces instead a muddied and muffled sound that is much less loud than one might expect. On the other hand, when fifteen or sixteen members of the Tallis Scholars sing, the perfection of their intonation causes the sound waves to reinforce one another so that the sound they produce is overwhelming, quite astonishingly so.
Language is like that, and as a connoisseur of language, I care.