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Monday, October 2, 2017


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.


Jon said...

Google tells me that one Richard White made the same complaint about "transpire" in 1871, and one Alfred Ayres -- calling it "one of the most frequently misused words in the language" -- in 1881. So that particular usage has been vexing some people for some time.

Jordan said...

You aren't the only one who gets to claim connoisseurship, you know! The linguistic descriptivist obviously doesn't deny the value of linguistic precision. And the point is not to suggest that "language gains its power from linguistic bombast, piling of word on word." Language is a tool, a way of coping with our situation. Words change meaning because our situation changes, because some distinctions become important for us when they weren't before, or because others become unimportant.

"Decimate" is a fine example -- it no longer matters to have a word that expresses what it originally expressed, and so that meaning of the word falls into disuse. The word itself does not, which is lucky, because it is precisely that fact that allows those of us interested in etymologies and different ways of carving the world up to trace the history. That meaning doesn't go away; it just becomes historical.

Of course you're right that some distinctions really are important, but become lost in linguistic transformation. But language, like life, moves forward. The way to keep a distinction like that alive is not to insist on reviving the old meaning, still less to insist that the old way of talking was the "correct" one, the one for those who really care about fine distinctions and coherent, logical thought. The way to revive a distinction is to be creative -- to offer a new way of speaking that we can conceive of as a move forward from where we are. The words "transpire" and "disinterested" may be as dead as "decimate," but the distinctions they once expressed could be brought back if some new linguistic formulation could breath new life in them.

howard b said...

As a flaneur of language, mishaps, miscues and mistakes with language delight and instruct- though something can be said in praise of your tack

s. wallerstein said...

When I was a teenager, I tried to improve my vocabulary and studied a book called "30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary", which Google informs me was written in 1942.

One of the lessons, I recall, was the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested".

I'm saddened to learn that that difference which I put so much effort into learning about 55 years ago is no longer respected.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Have you seen this news from Harvard, Professor? The type of protest you have suggested before:

LFC said...

@s wallerstein

Some of us still respect the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested." I never use the latter when I mean the former, and vice-versa. It's not that I think it's 'incorrect' to use "disinterested" to mean "uninterested" -- it seems no longer to be viewed as incorrect -- but I like to observe the distinction anyway. (Basically for the reasons laid out in the OP.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The Dude Diogenes, thank you. That was simply perfect! Good for them. It would be nice if the university administration showed that kind of guts and intelligence.

Amarnath said...

I am sure you are aware of the long-term study of the onset of Alzheimer's disease among nuns that showed the best way to avoid the disease is to have a strong lingual ability.

Matt said...

I at least mostly agree with Bob here. I'm surprised not to see the example that tends to most annoy philosophers, the ever-increasing use of "begs the question" to mean "raises a question". Again, it's not, per se, that those using it this way are wrong, but that we have a fine way, an easy and clear way, to say "raises the question" - by saying, "raises the question" - but when we use "begs the question" to mean that, we lose the ability to say "assumes what it is trying or purporting to prove" in as nice of a way, and there is now often a bit of unclarity, at least on first read, as to what people mean. We can, of course, say "assumes what it is trying or purporting to prove" instead of "begs the question", but something is lost, I'd maintain, when we have to.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Right on, Matt. I think I have already blogged about that, but not as elegantly as you just did.

Stephen Baraban said...

I especially dislike certain meaning shifts that seem to manifest moral or aesthetic coarsening, like when people these days speak of an "existential crisis" to refer to a question of whether an entity will survive, rather than a circumstance of choosing how to live. And it may be simple carelessness on the part of the speakers, but when people use "obtuse" to mean "abstruse" I get the feeling that they think any difficult literary work or act of thinking is a stupid, pointless phenomenon. I hate when people say "crescendo" to mean a maximum point of loudness--"reach a crescendo"--rather than the process of 'growing' to that climax: why can't they appreciate process? (though I guess that is a quite venerable linguistic blurring). Speaking of music, while imprecision amongst members of a chorus may be as aurally damaging as you say, Dr. Wolff, it is interesting that some critics say that the early recordings of modernistic orchestral masterworks by suchlike as Stravinsky and Bartok have a special raw excitement because some of the musicians were incapable of playing such music absolutely correctly and were out of sync.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Just wondering.... What about marriage? It certainly seems as if language, English in any case, is evolving so that "marriage" now has the expressive power to express the thoughts of women marrying women or men marrying men. But, that it was no so long ago that these things could not be expressed, that is, English lacked the expressive power to say something that could be thought. What does having the expressive power of a language come to? Does it mean that one can say what one thinks and no matter what the historical epoch, others will perceive what is said as a genuine possibility? Then, at every time, each language is limited in its expressive power, since the advance of time always brings the expression of thoughts that could not have been represented. That is part of the anisotropy of human time, no? That past and future are distinguished by the possibility of saying things that at another time could not be said? Marriage is one example, citizenship vis-a-vis race is another.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Stephen Baraban, that is fascinating. I had never heard that about the early recordings. Is it true of Rite of Spring, which caused such an uproar when it was first performed? Really interesting.

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