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Home | 2015

Language Lab

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2015-11-25 14:22.


We are not language pedants on this blog. Our position is that language - and certainly English - is changing continuously. Some changes are quick, others slow.

This series of posts will look at some of these changes. Some we may regard as welcome enrichments, others as interesting phenomena, some as regrettable developments that would really be better avoided. Did someone at the back just shout 'Canute'? Perhaps I misheard.

The whole subject of the way that language changes through time is fascinating and, let's be honest, barely understood. Let's see what is on the menu today.

Watered down words

To reach out to someone: As far as I can remember the original use of this phrase implied an act of rescuing someone in difficulty, associated with deliberate effort on the part of the rescuer. From being the description of a physical act of rescue ('reach out to a drowning child') it started to be used for a metaphorical act of social rescue ('reach out to underperforming kids').

Now it is heard more and more as an inflated substitute for 'to contact someone'. I imagine that because of the deliberate effort on the part of the rescuer that 'reach out to' has always implied, the expression functions as some sort of promise by the speaker that the contact would in fact be attempted or made.

Conclusion: A trivialisation of a perfectly acceptable metaphorical usage that really should be avoided.

Overloaded words

Significant: This word is a favourite hobby-horse for those who like to fix meaning from etymology and who therefore insist that 'significant' should only be used in the meaning of 'pointing towards some conclusion', 'indicative of something'. So many words have changed their meaning dramatically through time that 'meaning from etymology' reasoning has no rational foundation.

It is interesting, however, how overloaded with quite different meanings the word 'significant' has become. It seems to have to do the work for at least three different meanings. There may be other meanings for this very popular word, but here goes:

  1. Telling, diagnostic: Finding traces of explosive on the jacket was highly significant. The favourite meaning of the etymology crowd.
  2. Momentous, important, consequential: The French defeated us British at Yorktown, perhaps the most significant French victory in the history of the world. Including of course the popular negative, 'insignificant', meaning 'inconsequential', 'meaningless'. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5:5.)
  3. Appreciable, measurable: Recent migration will lead to significant population growth.
    If we had written above at least three significantly different meanings we really would have meant at least three appreciably different meanings.

Is this overloading of 'significant' significant? There doesn't seem to be any evidence of people being confused in practice by all these different meanings packed into one word, so the answer must be 'no'. As a general principle, though, it would probably be better if writers tried to use words that have more narrowly specific meanings.

Misused words

Planet: Currently extremely popular with the climate change crowd, The model predicts the state of the planet over future decades, from whence it has spread to infect otherwise sane people: There are 2.9 million IMAP servers on the surface of this planet.

Presumably because climate research is interested in the atmospheres of other planets besides Earth the word slithered into other climate contexts. Now it is beginning to slither out of control.

Loosely defined, a 'planet' is a member of a solar system. The Earth is indeed a 'planet', but only in this astronomical context. Our planet is called 'Earth'. Earth is its name. In an astronomical context we might call it 'planet Earth'. From the viewpoint of us people on its surface, without astronomical context, we should refer to it as 'Earth'. A construction such as 'the planet' is absurd. The word 'world' is also available. The differences in usage between 'Earth' and 'world' can be left to the reader to ponder. We can have 'an atlas or map of the world', but probably not 'an atlas or map of the Earth'.

The famous showman P. T. Barnum already showed a sound grasp of marketing hyperbole when he asserted that his circus was 'The Greatest Show on Earth' rather than the 'The Greatest Show in the World'. It is interesting to think about why we are so obviously 'on' the Earth but 'in' the world and whether the 'world' ever deserves to begin with a capital letter. Over to you.

But we should stamp on 'planet' as soon as it is used as fatuous hyperbole outside its strictly astronomical context.

Random: as in She just went on holiday with some random guy.

We know exactly what the speaker in this example means, but we rebel at the syntax. A person cannot be 'random'. A 'choice' or an 'occurrence' can be random. 'Some guy chosen at random' would be better, but this is probably not quite what the speaker meant, since the act of 'choosing' as we would normally understand it does not seem to have taken place. Quite the contrary: the guy wasn't 'chosen' but just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Would it therefore be better to say 'some guy she happened to meet'.

Despite the bad syntax I feel that the phrase is going to be used more and more as a concise alternative for 'something that happens to be there'. Life is a compromise, 'told by an idiot' etc.