Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The Politics of Meaning and Usage in
*By Farooq A. Kperogi*
What logic regulates correct usage? Why are words and expressions that are
perfectly acceptable in one era taboos in another? In other words, why do
the meanings and usages of words mutate radically over generations?
These and many other questions were the subject of an interesting email
exchange I had with a British editor recently. The Brit stumbled across a
previous article I wrote titled, “10 Most Irritating Errors in American
liked it very much. It stoked his British ego. But he also noticed an
Americanism (read: a grammatical slip by the standards of British English)
in the same write-up.
I wrote: “I have decided to dedicate this and next weeks’ columns to discuss
common grammatical errors in American English.” He pointed out that it
should be “dedicate… to discussing….” The verb “discuss,” he said, should be
in the progressive tense.
The practice of using "dedicate" with the regular forms of verbs is
peculiarly American, he pointed out to me. I agreed. But I told him that
even in modern British English there is a gradual, osmotic, if for now
imperceptible, semantic shift in the direction of that horrible Americanism
that irks him. He disagreed. “I don't recall ever seeing this mistake from a
British person,” he declared pompously.
I then sent him a link to the British National Corpus where that usage
(that is, where the verb that comes after “dedicate” in a sentence is not in
the progressive tense) has appeared a number of times in current British
English. (The British National
a comprehensive compilation of a representative sample of contemporary
written and spoken British English).
I wrote: “Well, I found these examples of the use of “dedicated to” without
the “ing” form of verbs from the British National
Apparently, it's not only Americans that alternate between using the
continuous and uninflected forms of a verb after the verb "dedicated."My
British friend ate humble pie.
This prodded a lively email conversation on why there is often a
disjunction between what has been prescribed as correct usage by experts and
what real, living people actually speak and write—and why grammarians later
succumb to popular usages, which they then codify and hold up as inviolable
standards, which are then violated again by people, usually in a subsequent
generation, ad nauseam.
“Meat” used to denote food in general (that sense of the word is still
retained in the age-old saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison);
“girl” used to mean any young person of either sex; “deer” initially
referred to any animal, a reason Shakespeare wrote of “rats and mice and
such small deer”; “silly” used to mean fortunate or happy; “broadcast” used
to refer to the act of throwing seeds in all directions, not to the
dissemination of information through radio and TV; “holiday” is derived from
“holy day,” but the word is now used for any day of freedom from work, even
if these days are secular; “villain” used to mean a village peasant, but it
now only means a wicked or evil person; “aggressive” used to mean hostile
and destructive behavior, but in modern business practice there is often a
tone of approval when someone is described as an “aggressive businessman” or
when methods are described as “aggressive strategies”; “academic,” an
otherwise respectable word, is now also used derisively to mean impractical,
pedantic; “rhetoric,” a time-honored study and application of the art of
persuasion, is now popularly used to mean mere loud, confused, and empty
talk; and so on.
Similarly, the meanings of words can expand beyond their original meanings.
For instance, the word “alibi” initially only meant “elsewhere,” and was
used only in legal defense to mean that someone was elsewhere while a crime
was committed and therefore couldn’t be blameworthy. Today, the semantic
boundaries of that word have been extended to mean “excuse” or
“self-justification” of any kind. Grammarians objected to this semantic
extension for a long time. Many have given up now.
It’s the same story with the word “alternative.” It originally meant “other
of two,” which meant that it couldn’t correctly be used for items that
exceeded two. In time, however, people began to talk about “hundreds of
alternatives.” Grammarians were outraged by this mutilation of the word.
There can only be “alternatives” for two choices, they protested. No one
listened. They lost the battle.
They also lost the battle over the correct usage of the word “decimate.” It
formerly meant “to kill one of every ten.” To the horror of grammatical
purists, people extended the semantic boundaries of the word to mean “kill a
large number,” to “wipe out,” to “eliminate.” So everyday users of English
again decimated the grammatical purists in the battle over the usage of
Most of the fulmination against the above usage patterns derives from a
desire to be faithful to the etymological distinction of the words. But
that’s short-sighted. Many common English words today have radically
diverged from their origins; their contemporary meanings bear not the
vaguest resemblance to their etymological roots.
For instance, the word “dilapidated” is derived from “lapis,” which is Latin
for stone. It is now used of deplorable condition. “Alcohol” was an Arabic
word for a substance that women used to darken and thicken their eyelashes;
today it means liquor that intoxicates. “Edify” is the Latin word for
“build” (a meaning still present in the word “edifice”); today it means to
improve through teaching and enlightenment. “Hysteria” is derived from the
Greek word for womb; now it means a state of violent mental agitation or
extreme emotion. In American English, "hysterical" is becoming synonymous
with "very funny."
Usage patterns also mutate over time. For instance, “each other” used to be
a reciprocal pronoun that referred only to two people, and it was often
understood that it was different from “one another,” which was supposed to
refer to three or more people. That distinction no longer exists. In modern
English usage, both phrases are used interchangeably.
It was also considered bad grammar to end sentences with prepositions. So
instead of writing “I don’t remember the name of the drug he was addicted
to,” grammarians of the previous generation would insist that the sentence
should be rendered as, “I don’t remember the name of the drug to which he
This rule emerged from a conscious, if unimaginative, mimicry of the
syntactical structure of Latin, the language of science and scholarship in
Europe until the 17th century. But the
“no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence” rule is counter-intuitive, even
senseless, and antithetical to the natural rhythm of the English language.
It’s no surprise that people had a hard time obeying it. Today most people
end sentences with prepositions, and grammarians don’t seem to be bothered
by this any longer.
So meanings and usages are, for the most part, context-specific and
historically contingent. If that is the case, why do people fuss over "bad"
usage? I think the reason that changes grate on people is that we see usage
as making sense according to the grammatical rules that are established in
our own minds. These rules in our minds, of course, reflect those rules
generally accepted in our environment.
However, it seems that the rules of grammar are changing less quickly in
other parts of the English-speaking world than they are in the United
States. As my British friend said, “From where I'm standing, people in the
US seem to be playing a game of yo-yo to which we Brits have not been
Note, though, that Americans have done more to extend the semantic and
communicative frontiers and capabilities of the English language in recent
times than the Brits have. The Brits should actually be grateful that
Americans speak English. Without Americans, English would have receded from
the world stage in the same manner that French and other once powerful
European languages have.
The strength of the English language derives from the material and symbolic
power of its native speakers, particularly Americans, the flexibility of its
grammatical rules, and the rich diversity of the sources of its vocabulary.
Almost every language in the world has contributed to the vocabulary of the
English language. (Next week, I will examine the contributions of African
languages to the vocabulary of the English language).
Well, the foregoing is essentially the story of the battle between “what
ought to be” (i.e., the snooty prescriptions of professional grammarians)
and “what is” (i.e., popular usage patterns among everyday folks) in meaning
and language usage. But that’s a grotesque simplification. Actually, the
“what ought to be” is more often than not aggregated and codified from the
“what is” to produce the “what ought to be.”
So usage rules proceed in dialectical triads: the “what ought to be” is
often first instituted as the norm, as the thesis. The “what is” then
emerges as an unorganized, unconscious antithesis, and the resolution of
this antagonism often gives birth to a new set of rules, which then become
the new thesis that grammarians preserve and hold up as the standards but
which are ultimately subverted by a new antithesis, and on and on. Call it
grammatical dialectics, if you like.
*1. A Comparison
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