Words Change and Shift.

Whenever I read old literature, I’m reminded about how our language is changing. Any reader of this blog knows that I think about words and how they change meaning. And I don’t mind that they change meaning, really. But I do complain a bit when either of the following two things happen:

1. A word becomes less precise, spreading its meaning or usage to a point where you need context to understand it.

2. A word gives up a meaning, leaving a vacuum there, and starts to mean something that we already have a word for.

For number 1: One of the nice things in Tristram Shandy (or any old book) is that so much can be understood without waiting for the context to become clear. “Whom” is different from “Who”; “That” is different from “Which”; and “Less” is different from “Fewer.”

As a reader who understand those differences, it’s distinctly easier relying on definitional cues over contextual ones. As definitions blend into each other, we need to understand more about the sentence before we can process the words in it. Which means more work. And I’m lazy.

As for number 2: It’s a matter of a diminishing palette. The example I often go to is: Transpire.

“Transpire” used to mean, among other things, “to become known.” Now that definition seems to be defunct. Instead, “transpire” has become a pretentious way to say, “happen” or “occur.”

But we ALREADY have words for “happen” or “occur,” and we’re giving up our only word for “become known” or “leak out.”

Not a dire circumstance, but just sort of sad. The way that it’s sad to hear about an extinct mole gone from sub-tropical woodlands.


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