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Neologisms, altered or lost meanings, and lexical monsters

The inventiveness of English-speakers can be wonderful. The other day I discovered “advismentor,” a word that seems to me to be witty and useful. We know at once what it means, and it extends the words “advisor/adviser” and “mentor” a bit, in (what I consider) a charming way. Let us adopt it forthwith.

But...the purists, pedants and fussy traditionalists have some valid points, IMHO. Inventions and changes can be stupid, unimaginative and ignorant. There are neologisms -- and new meanings and uses for old words -- that contribute nothing but lexical pollution.

Take, for example, a pet peeve of mine: the use of “parameter” to mean limit or setting. “Parameter” does not mean that; look it up, and see whether you can understand its real meaning. I can’t, so I don’t use the word. Many academics love junk words like this -- they consider them shibboleths that proclaim erudition and intellect. Hmpf! Congress should outlaw the abuse of “parameter,” even among computer enthusiasts.

Others: first we had “contact,” and then “to contact.” Not good. Then we had monstrosities like “to channelize,” “to compartmentalize,” and other -izes, which are all obvious rubbish. “Enormity” lost its trenchant meaning and became a silly, needless synonym for “huge size.” The hideous trend continued with “to critique,” a stinker if ever there was one.

The British, stupidly ignoring Fowler/Burchfield, decided to write “all right” as “alright,” a zany error that seems somehow to go well with their penchant for those hilarious unattached participles. I don’t know when people started using “if” to mean “whether,” a nasty bit of illogic and confusion that seems to have escaped English instructors the world over. Now (gag!) we have “to text,” another tellingly ignorant error.

Like the intolerable verbal tics “you know,” “like,” and “I mean,” these lexical monstrosities are expressions considerate people avoid. After all, one does not join friends for lunch, and then pick one’s nose after finishing the soup, now does one?

Change -- the new -- is not always bad. That does not mean the bad is ever anything but bad, period. Usage born of sheer ignorance does not have my respect, though I do not doubt that over generations, many egregious alterations of English managed to shed the stigma of illegitimacy. Heavy sigh.....

  • September 22, 2006
  • Posted by lawrence
  • Filed in Usage

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Daniel, I see no reason to complain about that even. For anyone who ever complains about these sorts of things, consider this: a 16th century English cleric bemoaned the putrefied state that the English language had reached because people were saying "has" instead of "hath." So yeah, for all you perscriptivists, I don't want to hear any more of this "has" crap. Let's hear you start talking English good, the way she's meant to be spoke.

AO September 24, 2006, 5:37pm

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I'm sorry but I don't agree with you saying 'The British, stupidly ignoring Fowler/Burchfield, decided to write "all right" as "alright,"'. This is a horrible generalisation, as Americans, Australians and many other Anglophones also use this variation, which is, by the way, perfectly acceptable by modern standards. Conversely, many British people oppose to this variation just as you do. So please do not lump us altogether. (See what I did there? It was intentional before you starta again.)

I appreciate your desire to preserve the English language as it originally once was, but to be honest you can't do that completely. After all, you are using American spellings in your entry, including "-ize" whereas all other Anglophones would spell it "-ise", the original spelling.

I am not criticising your use of English, merely pointing out that there are indeed variations, whether they be accentual, dialectal or indeed as you put it, pertaining to "one's background, upbringing, education, etc." I do not believe in dismissing accepted variations and neologisms just because one does not agree with them. One can choose not to use them, but to actually correct or condemn another for doing so is quite frankly a little snobby.

everyskyline January 5, 2007, 9:14am

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The verb "contact" has been in use since the 1800s. Nouns turning into verbs is a normal part of English: Curb, date, elbow, head, interview, panic, park and of course text are all nouns that later became verbs. What exactly is your objection to nouns becoming verbs?

My dictionary gives "limit" as one of the meanins of "parameter".

My dictionary says "alright" is a variant spelling of "all right". And what exactly is wrong with "alright"? It is comprehensible and doesn't cause confusion.

Adding "ize" to make new verbs is a normal, productive process. If you don't like it, well that's fair enough. But you shouldn't expect normal processes of language change to stop because you don't like them.

"Nice" originally meant "silly" and "petulant" originally mean "immodest, wanton, saucy." "Crayfish" was originally "crevise" and was changed because of the animal's association with fish. Were these changes wrong? And if they were, how are we ever going to decide what changes are right?

Language is always changing. Instead of complaining about certain usages because you think they're illogical or ugly, find out what the facts are. Impressions are unreliable.

John September 22, 2006, 10:57am

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Ahem. As I said, changes are not always bad. I mentioned some that are ignorant and horrid, true; I did not rail against the evolution of a language. Otherwise, three brief responses:

1. "Parameter" allows me to make an important point. The difference between a dictionary that is a reference and a dictionary that is a mere chronicle of use and abuse is substantial. The two serve totally different purposes. To use the latter as if it were the former is a serious mistake.

2. From Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's, p. 43, 3rd Ed., 1996, Oxford: 'The use of "all right," or inability to see that there is anything wrong with "alright," reveals one's background, upbringing, education, etc., perhaps as much as any word in the language.' The authority then lays out a summary of the history of the abuse. "Alright" is not all right.

3. At its base, this is a debate about the choice between ignorance and knowledge. I insist that it is preferable to know what a word means and to use it properly. Ultimately, language is not possible if all rules are off and the individual makes all the choices. That does not mean that vocabulary should be cast in steel -- it merely means that education is better than an absence thereof, and that the ability to use a language with precision is a benefit. It makes no sense to argue that (a) some changes do occur (a gloriously trivial fact), therefore (b) all are acceptable. Those who hew to correct English are still free to invent and modify and even break the rules (consider Churchill); I also accept that dialects and slang are universal and unassailable. However: lexical anarchy that exalts sloth is a way of degrading, "dumbing down," a language that does not deserve that fate.

Many years ago, a friend who was studying to become an English teacher entertained me with a colorful denunciation of what he called "prescriptive grammarians." I did not point out to him that he was abandoning his intended profession before entering it. Perhaps he wound up like the New York public school teacher who, on television, proudly stated, "I teaches (sic) English." LOL....

lawrence September 22, 2006, 1:24pm

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Regarding the difference between dictionaries as references and as chronicles of "use and abuse": who would give such authority to them? We don't have an Academy of English, thank God. I myself am unwilling to give up my right to my language to a corporation that publishes books on the grounds of whether or not they will sell.

Rules aren't completely off in any language. It's jut that those rules are set down in stone by self-appointed experts, but are arrived at communally by speakers.

Your teacher friend hadn't abandoned his calling at all. He was rather showing his great love for language. I hope that what he taught his students was that there are such things as "registers," and that one of them is Standard English, which has rules that change more slowly than those used in everyday speech, but that it was still open to change from without, as is every language that isn't dead. He should then have gone on to show them when one register is to be preferred, and when another. (It's as wrong to use aspects of Standard English in everyday conversation as the other way round.) And then he should have taught them Standard English, making sure that they knew the differences between it and their ordinary language. BUt he should never have said that their usages were wrong; language is as language does. Otherwise we'd all be speaking Proto-World.

David Fickett-Wilbar September 22, 2006, 1:47pm

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1. Most dictionaries are descriptive documents. They describe how words are used. Yes, a dictionary is only as much of an authority as you want it to be. But the fact that my dictionary says "parameter" means "limit" means that many many people use "parameter" in that way. That is one of the meanings of "parameter". After all, how else are we to determine what words mean, if not by how they are used?

2. All Burchfield is telling me here is that people who dislike "alright" are linguistic snobs. They dislike certain speakers' dialects or ways of writing. But that doesn't mean that there is anything necessarily wrong with different dialects or ways of writing. We have a standard English, and it is very useful and important. Yes, education is desirable, and learning to use standard English is desirable. But "standard" does not mean "better".

3. I disagree. This is a debate about prescriptivism and descriptivism. Prescriptivists want to prescribe certain usages, irrespective of how language is actually used. Descriptivists want to describe how language is actually used.

I don't think that all changes are acceptable. Just because someone says something, that does not automatically make it correct. However, the usages I noted (alright, parameter, -ize) are in widespread use.

The notion that certain kinds of language change will lead to "degrading," "dumbing down", or "anarchy" is simply wrong. People have been complaining about the decline of English since the 1800s, and people have complained about language "decline" in general long before that. But has language declined? Has English descended into "lexical anarchy" since the 1800s? Of course not.

Language doesn't work like that. Take a language like Pirahã. This language has no formal grammar books or dictionaries. Pirahã children aren't taught Pirahã in school. And yet Pirahã speakers can communicate, presumably with little difficulty. Why should English be any different?

Languages do degrade when the number of speakers diminishes. Linguists call it "language death". But English has more and more speakers ever day. It is in no danger.

John September 22, 2006, 2:04pm

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"Ultimately, language is not possible if all rules are off and the individual makes all the choices."

This simply would never happen. All languages have rules. Most of these rules are not written down in any usage book. But the rules are real.

I hit the ball hard.
*I hit hard the ball.

The second sentence is ungrammatical. English is very resistant to adverbs being placed between the verb and its object. This is a rule. Even if English had no dictionaries or prescriptivists to tell us how to speak, no English speaker would break this rule.

John September 22, 2006, 2:20pm

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Er, "I hit hard the ball" is the sort of thing poets is inventive and arresting usage, not abuse. Breaking rules can be an excellent idea. It can also be just ignorant and obnoxious. But never mind.

Perhaps a careful reading of my original post would help some to grasp my contentions.

The tension between fussy pedants and their critics will continue as long as there are apologists for laziness, bad taste, lack of precision and ineffective education on the one hand, and dedicated prescriptive educators on the other. Encouraging people to do better is always a challenge, and, as we see here, can draw fire.

I hope my forthcoming silence will not lead anyone to believe that I feel outgunned! It's time to move on, though, as both sides have taken their best shots. Let the bystanders decide who has carried the day.

(Addendum: in my post, I pleaded for a Preview feature. That request was censored. I hope I can sneak it in here...Preview helps dyslexic typists who are not clever at proofreading their own prose. I'm in that unhappy group. This website could benefit from adding Preview.)

Lawrence September 22, 2006, 10:18pm

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At first I was ready to lambaste the site moderator for editing out your coment about previewing. It sounded like an attempt to censor criticism of the site. But then I thought about it, and maybe it was edited out simply because the owner of the site took it to be a message directly to him, and off-topic. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and consider that your request was heard without it being a call to arms. Oh, and I agree, a preview page would be GREAT. I have even hit "send" accidentally before I was ready!

porsche September 22, 2006, 10:43pm

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I read your initial post carefully Lawrence, and it still seems to me that you are simply stating your tastes without appealing to facts. You state that these usages are ignorant, without providing any evidence.

Plus you say things that are untrue, which I have pointed out.

Your "apologists for laziness, bad taste, lack of precision and ineffective education" is a straw man. Read the Language Log article I linked to.

John September 22, 2006, 11:16pm

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To use one of your own examples against you:

The reason "critique" has become a verb is because "criticize" has come to mean, colloquially, something close to "disaprove of". So to make clear that we want to say something like "thoughtfully analyze", we need a different verb, and "critique" fits the bill.

You can certainly wish that "criticize" had not gained such a negative sense as to require the creation of a new verb, but to say that the meaning of words shouldn't change...well, there's a reason we're not all speaking Middle English (or proto-Indo-European for that matter).

Eyefeel allright January 18, 2007, 3:56am

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speech develops, cool it

if people start using like, i mean, or you know in their writing, then you can complain, but not before

daniel September 23, 2006, 4:04pm

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As requested, I added the preview page. I you see any issues with it, please let me know.

Dyske September 25, 2006, 3:00pm

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I waver between prescriptivist and descriptivist and hate the hypocrisy in myself that varies from grammar issue to grammar issue. However, as an ESL teacher, I have to point out that people learn English for all kinds of reasons. I teach senior citizens who come to the US in their 60s or later. Frankly if they get as close as "I hit hard the ball," that's okay. It isn't grammatical, but it may be good enough to survive in a new country. I have to get them able to shop and survive a trip to the emergency room (not in that order, I guess) with passable -- read good ENOUGH -- grammar, vocabulary, and let us not forget pronunciation.

FYA, my husband and I attended a symposium on dictionary management at the Smithsonian a few years ago. At the break, I shared my pet peeve with one of the panelists -- the use of "ate" to verbify pretty much anything, and the awful back-formations that result. Commentator gives us commentate rather than comment. Orientation gives us -- ouch -- orientate rather than orient. Shoot me now. And administrator/ion gives us administrate rather than administer. And he opens the big book in front of him and shows me administrate has been a perfectly good word since the 1500s. Ouch.

Janet September 25, 2006, 4:45pm

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I am an old student at the beginner level. I'm exactly this kind of people Janet teachs to: nearing sixty, waiting for retirement, dreaming about a trip to the US with my husband. But learning only survival phrases is not enough for me. I do love english, the Internet is an excellent teacher and I'd like to improve. Here is my problem: I'm not fluent. So I use DELIBERATELY those verbal tics "you know, I mean, kind of, etc" (interjections I simply hate in my native language, italian) in order to take time, find the right word in my mind and organize my speech. As a result, less embarassing's not stylish, but this way my conversation sounds a bit more natural.

Claudia October 10, 2006, 3:46pm

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What I can't understand is how someone with a so-called penchant for English can write such a poor piece! Couldn't you have kept a logical flow to your statements? Couldn't you have , for example, kept all the examples of making verbs from nouns in the same paragraph? Oh, and couldn't you have stated of which your examples were? Sorry, but you irk me, sir!

Nichole October 19, 2006, 10:15am

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the mathematical definition of parameter also means limit or boundary. There is no meaning of this word which does not have this sense.
1. Mathematics. a. a constant or variable term in a function that determines the specific form of the function but not its general nature, as a in f(x) = ax, where a determines only the slope of the line described by f(x).
b. one of the independent variables in a set of parametric equations.

2. Statistics. a variable entering into the mathematical form of any distribution such that the possible values of the variable correspond to different distributions.

Anonymous October 21, 2006, 6:54am

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I take the first point about the usefulness of 'advismentor' but let's please not forget the cautionary tale of Tobias Funke from the TV show Arrested Development who claimed to be the first combiner of the two professions, 'therapist' and 'analyst;' producing business cards as the world's first 'analrapist.'

andy October 23, 2006, 12:23pm

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