Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A New Word for...

In the 2nd century BC, the Greek scholar Aristophanes was not a happy man.  The problem was that young people today just didn't speak properly — the way, for example, his 5th century namesake the comic dramatist had spoken.  Besides (in all probability) the fact that they mumbled and used incomprehensible slang, they also completely ignored the pitch accent.

Classical Greek, unlike any modern western language, was spoken with the pitch of words and phrases varying according to a set pattern.  It's been suggested that listening to, say, Socrates talk in the streets of Athens would have sounded rather like an opera singer performing recitative.  But, in the 2nd century, Greek speakers were ignoring this in favour of a stress accent of the kind we use in English.

Aristophanes's solution was to invent a series of accents — such as è, é and ê — to use in written Greek and indicate how the pitch should go.  However, the unruly youngsters continued to ignore him, and Greek gradually developed into the language spoken by millions today.  The accents weren't even much help to classicists, since Aristophanes didn't leave a clear enough explanation of how exactly the accents should be used, and there isn't a complete consensus about how the language should sound, although the same accents have been used for a variety of purposes in other languages.

The point about this story is that languages change, regardless of the horror of pedants, and often in unexpected ways.  Of course they do.  If not, I'd be writing this blog in Anglo-Saxon.  Or perhaps in Proto-Germanic; or in Proto-Indo-European; or in the unknown language that derived from; or even in the monosyllabic calls some early hominid species used to coordinate their hunts.  Come to that, what was wrong with when we just used to get on with the hunting, without all this new-fangled language nonsense?

Nevertheless, as writers, we're not utterly helpless in the face of language change.  Of course, we can't all be Shakespeare or the translators of the King James Bible, who had a profound effect on how English developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, but to some extent we can try to encourage changes that feel useful and graceful over those that don't, and maintain usages that, while not needed on a regular basis, are valuable to keep for when they are needed.

I thought I'd have a look at some of the words whose meanings have changed over the centuries, for good or ill, and some of the reasons why this would happen.  Sometimes, of course, it's for purely practical reasons.  Most computing terms, for instance, are new, specialist meaning for existing words - booting, menu, icon and the like.

Some words just drift, though.  The word nice originally meant precise, and it's still occasionally used in that sense — a nice distinction, for instance.  Gradually, though, it came to mean pleasant, and more recently can even be used to mean the opposite in a "damning through faint praise" way.  To describe something as very nice can be the kiss of death.

Sometimes, changes of meaning can create confusion.  We all know the expression the exception that proves the rule, which appears to be an absurd statement — an exception challenges a rule, it doesn't validate it.  In fact, that's precisely what it means, since prove originally meant to test, as in a military proving ground.  We have such faith in sayings, though, that many people assume it must be true in its modern sense.

A euphemistic meaning might take a word over for a while.  Shakespeare's Falstaff refers somewhere to how accommodate used to be an excellent word until it fell into bad company, a reference to a temporary slang meaning at the time of having sex.  Even when it isn't bad company a word falls into, slang meanings can overwhelm the normal meaning.  A century ago, or less, a single man addicted to wine, women and song would be described as a gay bachelor.  Nowadays, that would mean something completely different.

So should we just go with any change that's in the air?  And if not, what makes one change good and another bad?  That's partly a matter of taste, but I'd like to give my view by contrasting two words.

The original meaning of mutual is reciprocal, but it's gradually acquired the new meaning of shared, as in the Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend.  In the "real" sense, mutual friend is a tautology — it means I'm your friend and your my friend — but the alternative has become established now.

My biggest hate in "wrong" meanings, on the other hand, is disinterested.  It does not mean indifferent, it means impartial or neutral.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary does list the meaning uninterested, but describes it as "disputed" - dictionaryese for a meaning that's used but the dictionary isn't convinced by — and represents pure failure to learn what the word really means.

There are two particular differences between these cases.  One is that the change in mutual is an understandable mutation — shared isn't the same as reciprocal, but there's a connection between them — whereas the change in disinterested is purely an error.  The other is that the difference between the two meanings of mutual is fairly obvious, and there's unlikely to be an misunderstanding.  The spread of the misunderstanding about disinterested, on the other hand, makes it difficult to use the word correctly.  If I were to announce I was going to be a disinterested judge of a contest, you could pretty much guarantee someone would tell me I ought to be interested.  So I'd have to hit the person over the head and introduce them to a dictionary.

The meaning of any word, of course, is what's understood by it, and maybe eventually the meaning of disinterested will change, but I'd regret that.  Although both meanings have synonyms, it seems to me that the correct meaning is a more useful one.  I'll continue using it that way — and any editor who suggests otherwise will receive a lecture.

Ultimately, though, it's usefulness that counts, and even a blatant error can be useful.  The word careen has gone through an extraordinary change lately.  It's actually a nautical term meaning to scrape the barnacles off the hull of a ship or boat, but somewhere along the line it seems to have become confused with the verb career, meaning to run wildly and aimlessly (the more usual meaning was originally a metaphor for a race, whether or not by rats).  In a way, it's as wrong as disinterested, but it sounds right.  In any case, the real meaning is very technical, and it's unlikely to be used between people who don't understand it.

This is just a tiny sample of how the English language has changed, and the only thing we can know for sure about its future course is that it'll continue to change in ways no-one will guess until it happens.  In the unlikely event of this piece still existing in a couple of hundred years, I wonder how much amusement it'll cause because the meanings of some of the words are different.  I hope you have a good laugh.

1 comment:

  1. Changes in language (especially grammar use but word use too) is always a sticky issue with writers, who have more cause than most to think about how a well-chosen word or phrase can elicit a mood or emotion. I've often wondered why modern English lacks accent marks of any kind (with the exception of a few imported french words like cliché, which by the way, Mozilla's onboard spellchecker thinks is correct unaccented) when most European languages use them. It's not like the same letters or combinations of letters can't have different pronunciations in English.

    Changes in word meaning (or connotation) can be frustrating, or occasionally embarrassing, for old fogeys like me. As a biology teacher, I have to remind myself to call the large North American feline (Felis Concolor) a "mountain lion" or "puma" and not a "cougar" anymore, lest I elicit giggles from my students :)

    The biggest concern I have is the loss of vocabulary. The language changes and words have always fallen in and out of use. But it's my understanding that the average English speaker has a much smaller functional vocabulary than a generation ago, and words are disappearing from popular lexicon much more rapidly than new ones are appearing. Words I truly consider everyday and ubiquitous (notice my use of such a word here) often elicit blank stares from college students and raised eyebrows from some of my age peers.

    Still, as you aptly point out, the older person's passtime of lamenting the deficiencies of the up and coming generation is nothing new. Somehow the human race continues to slog on.