[DWJ] losing words (was Tropes and other such)

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Thu Dec 7 07:54:23 EST 2006

>Minnow wrote:
>> Avoiding the problem by simply not using either word or phrase is probably
>> the only safe way round it all.  The trouble is that the language is
>> smaller for this, and our choices are reduced each time a good and precise
>> word or phrase becomes an ambiguous one through misuse.

and Colin responded:

>If such attrition were the only process at work, yes. But logogenesis
>continues apace, however much the curmudgeons might dislike to the results.

Or dislike the things these words come to mean, like "friendly fire" or
"liberate" or "democracy".

What worries me is that the disappearance of a word seems to be related to
the loss at the same time of the thing the word meant, in at least some

"Disinterested" meant "informed but unbiased".  It is now used as if it
meant "I neither know nor care about this matter", or, worse, "this person
to whom I am applying the word 'disinterested' is uninterested in the
matter".  At the same time, the *idea* that one may know about a subject
but not have an axe to grind seems to be falling by the wayside -- and the
uninformed opinion of a person ignorant in a given field carries weight
apparently *because* he or she knows frod all about what s/he is talking
about and so is "unbiased".

Various unfashionable people like T.H. White and George Orwell have
suggested at one time and another that by removing the word for some
abstract notion from the language one can in time remove the idea too: the
ants have no words for "good", "better" and "best" and no apparent feeling
about the comparitive states in which they may find themselves, and
Newspeak is classic.

If "charity" has come to mean "giving money to an organisation that gives
food to starving children", what word now means the third of that "faith,
hope and charity" advocated by St. Paul?  (And when did you last hear
anyone say that their emotional feeling about another individual amounted
to "loving-kindness", if that would now be the closest we could come?
"Caring"?  "I care for him" = "I get an allowance from the State so I can
nurse him"... and a "carer" is someone paid to provide a service to someone
who can't do things for himself.  argh... )

I'm not suggesting that *Lost Beauties of the English Language* is a
must-read (though it  contains more different diseases of the sheep in the
nineteenth century than anyone not a vet could possibly want, not to
mention scads of words for "wet ground" that may start to come in very
useful if we go on having more and more flash-floods and houses built on
flood-plains), just that perhaps words may have value for their meaning,
and we may come to wish we'd been a bit careful about discarding or
disregarding them without thinking about it.


More information about the Dwj mailing list