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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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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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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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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 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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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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