It’s all in the words

10 Feb

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,

That is Chaucer, from Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, lines 22-25

English is a language which is particularly prone to change of speech, with a magpie attitude to including useful foreign words. The Great Vowel Shift  which changed the way words were pronounced, means that the words above can prove quite difficult for modern readers. Even  eighteenth century novels can seem arcane and challenging. The language is evolving at a great pace even today, with text speak coming in to many vocabularies, OMG.

I don’t wish to be prescriptive, but I do think we should value the meaning of some words, and the shades of meaning among synonyms. The words, ‘sight’ and ‘vision’ might be thought to be synonymous, but  if I were to call my wife a vision she would be considerably more happy than if I were to call her a sight. (Perhaps that only works in UK English).

Last night I heard a presenter on the television describe an historical building as being ‘relatively unique’. I inwardly screamed. There are no gradations or comparisons of uniqueness. Something is either unique or it is not. If it is not unique it might be described as being very rare or extremely unusual if there are very few examples, but never, ever, ‘relatively unique’.

There are other words where the gradation of meaning among synonyms has become blurred. If I hear an expert on the radio or television use the word ‘diminish’ in all possible uses, I groan. I like the phrase ‘the law of diminishing returns’, as this indicates a trend which can be shown graphically over a period of time. In most uses, ‘diminish’ would be better replaced with ‘reduce’ or ‘lessen’ or one of several other words. In seems the very sound of the word, diminish is an end in itself.

I have a problem with adjectives being used as verbs, as in ‘Largeing it’, and another problem with clumsy construction which makes the writer sound as dumb as Dubya in his pomp.

I am not a pedant, but it could reasonably be judged that I exhibit some factors in my work which are traditionally associated with pedantry.



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