Friday, June 17, 2011

Is the English Language Becoming Watered-Down?

Words just aren’t what they used to be.

My father loves to tell a story that when I was a boy I told him that the English language had too many words and that we probably only needed about 300 words and we could just throw out the rest.

Since then I’ve grown-up and changed my tune; what I didn’t understand then is that almost every word in the English language has a unique definition. There are very few true synonyms (an exception may be flammable and inflammable). After all, why would there need to be two words if they shared the exact same meaning?

The problem is that in this age of sound-bytes, texting and twitter, words are losing their subtleties and nuances.

A friend of mine recently posted a blog article where he called hermits aberrant human beings. He got a negative comment that said there was nothing wrong with being introverted or asocial.

Being a hermit doesn’t mean the same thing as introverted. Except that the language has become so relaxed we’ll say things like, “Yeah I was such a hermit last night I stayed in my room and played video games till 2 in the morning and didn’t see anyone.”

Therefore it should be no surprise that the commenter momentarily forgot what the word hermit actually means.

Hermit- A person who has withdrawn from society and lives a solitary existence; a recluse.

Introvert- a shy person.

In case anyone is still confused I’ll break it down into logical statements:

All hermits are introverts
But, all introverts are not hermits.

Or, broken down into the hierarchy of smallest, bigger, and biggest you have introverts, asocial humans, and hermits.

Has anyone else noticed words losing their meanings?

[In conclusion, I want everyone to specify the exact meaning of every word they use. If English doesn’t have the distinction borrow it from another language. So when you tell your wife/husband you love them specify that it is Agape-love and when you tell your brother/sister or house pet that you love them specify that it is Philia-love. I promise that people will think you’re smarter and no one will think you’re a pompous windbag.]- Sarcasm


  1. I remember, when I was a kid, hearing that the French had long tried to keep their language pure, which contrasted with the English habit of adopting words from everywhere (including France).

    The result, or so I was told, was that the English language had a far larger vocabulary than French. (Apparently, that's true, though I don't know how much of it is due to French efforts to keep foreign words out. English has by far the largest vocabulary of any language, I believe.)

    But I've always loved books, and maybe that's why I appreciate words. I certainly enjoy hearing Christopher Hitchens speak, even when I don't agree with him, because he's one of the few people who speaks like he writes - beautifully, in both cases.

    You'll get a kick out of this, John. Just now, when I was browsing for information on the vocabulary size of the English language, I came across this comment:

    English is rich, but there are thousands of words in English that if used at all would sound utterly bizarre. I once used a thesaurus to find a synonym for 'anolamy' [sic], which was 'aberration', but using it (even correctly) was snickered at by a few close co-workers because it just didn't sound natural to use (which I knew it wouldn't...). Not saying that the word 'aberration' doesn't have its place--but very often many words are rather useless.

    Heh, heh. "Aberration" doesn't sound natural? I assumed that "aberrant" was a perfectly normal word to use, but maybe I was wrong. I do remember hearing about a guy who nearly got fired for using the word "niggardly."

  2. I don't think the word anomaly or aberration are particularly strange words, but I'm probably not a good judge. In High School my friends told me that they used to joke about how I'd always throw "big words" into my oral reports. They thought I was trying to be funny or something, but I was just using my vocabulary, I wasn't doing it consciously.

    As for your last point, it is a shame when words go the wayside, but the battle is definitely lost for that word isn't it? Even though the word has been falsely accused of having a racist association, it just doesn't seem right to use it.

  3. Well, "niggardly" is not exactly a word I'd use, anyway - certainly not in conversation. I'm quite sure I've never heard anyone say it.

    I've long seen it in written works - older books, mostly - so I've known what it meant since I was a kid, but it's not common enough that I'd likely use it myself.

    Besides, it hardly matters. A living language changes. Words are born and words die. And in many cases, the meanings change.

    All this is natural. To try to prevent these changes would kill the language - or at least stunt it. For those of us who love language, the best thing is to simply use words we like, and to spread such things in other ways, too.

    The internet is a great place for this. It's a way to share not just ideas but the skilled expression of them, too.

  4. I just had to post this somewhere, John, and it seemed appropriate here. Today, my newspaper published a brief article with the headline, "Man tries to rob dog in Near South" (a neighborhood here in Lincoln, Nebraska).

    I was wondering what possessions the dog was carrying that the thief tried to steal - its collar? Trained fleas? Or maybe it was a Saint Bernard with a keg of booze around its neck?

    In reality, of course, the thief wasn't trying to rob the dog. He was trying to steal the dog. Oh, well, I'm just glad my own mistakes aren't delivered to thousands of people around the city. There are advantages to having a blog that no one reads. :)

  5. Absolutely. I studied journalism in college. You could write many posts about mistakes in headlines. This paper should have consulted their AP Style Book (Which is a guide for newspaper writing. I still have the now 10 year old 2001 edition)under "burglary, larceny, robbery, theft" the last sentence says USAGE NOTE: You rob a person, bank, house, etc., but you steal the money or the jewels.