Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day
It’s something like a Murphy’s Law of language: two words that can be confused will be confused. Sometimes, the more popular word will encroach on the less popular (as when “demean” took over the sense “bemean” [= to make base or low; degrade]). At other times, the less well-known word encroaches on the better-known one. The following pairs are illustrative: “affect” gets used for “effect.” “bizarre” for “bazaar,” “comprise” for “compose,” “deprecate” for “depreciate,” “effete” for “elite,” “fortuitous” for “fortunate,” “luxurious” for “luxuriant,” “recant” for “recount,” “reticent” for “reluctant,” “vortex” for “vertex,” and so on.
How does this happen? Because people enjoy experimenting with words — not going so far as to engage in true sesquipedality, but merely using slightly offbeat words that everyone has heard before — they’ll replace an “expected” word with one that strikes them as more genteel. And they’ll do this without ever bothering to look the word up in a dictionary.
In the old days, this psychological impulse probably didn’t have a great effect on the language. But in an age of mass communications — when millions of people can be simultaneously exposed to a barbarous error in speech — the effect can be almost immediate. One speaker’s carelessness with the language spreads as never before.
And because writing follows speech — as it must — these confusions, over time, get embedded in the language. The dictionaries record that “infer” sometimes means “imply”; that “precipitous” sometimes means “precipitate” (adj.); and that “regretfully” sometimes means “regrettably.” It’s the lexicographer’s duty to record what’s happening in the language; if various words are in flux, then the dictionaries will reflect it.
That’s where a good dictionary of usage comes in: it helps people understand which words are worth continuing the struggle to preserve in their traditional senses; which words are all but lost in the short term (skunked terms); and which words, though once confused, have undergone semantic changes that can’t be objected to any longer. In any given age, various sets of words belong at different places on that continuum.
Rarely do the preservationists — the ones who want to keep traditional distinctions — prevail. Sometimes they do; more often they don’t. But that doesn’t mean the struggle is in vain. To the contrary: it means that these speakers and writers will be better equipped, among their contemporaries, to avoid stumbling and thrashing about in the language. Among astute listeners and readers, they’ll have a higher degree of credibility. There’s much to be said for that.
For information about the Language-Change Index click here.
Quotation of the Day: “Sometimes one is struck by the way in which a word one has known all one’s life suddenly takes on a new meaning.” B.L.K. Henderson, Chats About Our Mother Tongue 79 (1927).