The other day, I read an Irish Times article titled, “English Language is Literally Spiralling Exponentially out of the Control of Pedants.” I had a lovely laugh at its cleverness. The long-term misuse of “literally” and the emerging misuse of “exponentially” are among the many, many things that drive me, a proud pedant, into a spin. I can only imagine what poor George Orwell is doing in his grave. Spinning himself into a fine dust, that’s what.
The article’s author, Donald Clarke, observed that “a word now seems to mean what a lot of people think it means.” That is to say, that people think they know what a word means, and they use it to mean that, but it doesn’t. “Exponentially” does not mean “quite a bit” or “pretty fast.” It is a very specific kind of increase, but the word is being rendered meaningless (except in algebra class), by the crowd that got their hands on amazing, awesome, and incredible. I am a pedant, when it comes to words, and pedant does not mean “unimaginative,” as I have seen it defined. It means strict. The thing is that I love a neologism or a fresh use as much as anyone. New use and fresh use are not misuse.
Disrespect and party are not verbs. They’re nouns. Bring and take are not interchangeable, and neither are floor and ground or roof and ceiling. These words have specific meanings, and here’s one reason why it matters. People will say that others know what they mean, so what difference does it make. Well, it’s because they only think they know what it means. If neither side of an exchange knows what a word means, how can either one be sure that they both mean the same thing by it? Words are very dependable things, but people are not, so when they fling out an “exponentially” to make themselves look informed, they embarrass themselves because people who really do know what it means and how to use it see right through the facade. Communication requires as a starting point that all sides agree on using language a certain way.
The other day, I heard a judge on a cooking competition say that there was a “discourse” between the two components of a dish. But she was making a complaint. She meant “discord.” “Discourse,” in that context, would have been a positive thing. It would have suggested a conversation or interaction, but she wanted a word that suggested a disconnection. I was embarrassed for her. Don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means, and be bothered to find out what it means! How hard is that? I once had a college-level student (and I am not making this up) who was astonished when I told her to look a word up in the dictionary. She did not know that a dictionary has definitions in it. I swear. College-level.
This isn’t about the evolution of language. Words are alive, and sometimes, definitions do evolve and new words emerge. But the current vocabulary disempowers the words it flings around. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. In fact, when someone says something was amazing, I know it wasn’t. I have invoked Orwell here because of his cogent essay “Politics and the English Language.” In 1946, he wrote, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” Amen, George.