Monday, July 23, 2018


The Babylon Bee has nice parody of the change of meaning of the word "violence." They are more accurate than they know. Dictionaries are primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive in the last sixty years*.  They no longer tell you what the best people think a word means or should mean, as many of us were used to in grammar school many years ago.** Words change in meaning, especially in the directions of heightening or diminishing of effect, or generalisation versus specification.  The word molest meant only to bother or annoy, or perhaps interfere with a person, until quite recently.  The first reference using it in a sexual way was 1950. Awful and terrible have changed. For a very great change, you can follow the word silly over a thousand years. (Good music at the link.)

There are also longstanding examples of milder uses of violence, of doing violence to an idea, or a violent storm.
The World Health Organization's definition, though it starts with the conventional idea of physical force or injury, is already moving in the direction the Babylon Bee parodies:
"the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation," (although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of "the use of power" in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.) Wikipedia.

Whenever important words change they cause disruption, as people are no longer talking about quite the same thing.  Cults redefine words so that they can claim to be following traditional (or biblical) values while introducing new ideas.  It is fine to stick to the usual definitions of a word in one's own use.  I encourage it, because it aids in understanding what other ages what other ages meant, rather than being a prisoner of last Tuesday's culture.  But the language will change whether we will or know, and sometimes it helps to understand that other people are using a different meaning.  They themselves may not be the instigators. Young people are quick to pick up how a word is used in their current context and adapt.  They use racist, or violence, in they way they are taught in some of their classes and by the more excitable of their friends. Even those who basically hold to the stricter ideas of those terms that I would use are likely to have at least slightly expanded meanings of the term, by my lights. It may be better to ask "what do you mean when you say "violence?" than to simply declare it wrong. (Even though it is wrong, dammit.)

*The Story of Ain't by David Skinner is a solid and entertaining look at the change in dictionaries.

**Note also the word "grammar" school, grades 1-8, where we would say elementary and middle, or elementary and junior high these days. One of the primary aims was that children would learn to write and say things correctly. We say "of course," but they did not care so much about science or more than basic geography and history a hundred years ago.  Lots of penmanship, lots of multiplication tables. Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz.


Texan99 said...

I remember trying to use "apprehension" to mean understanding, in a work memo some decades back. The universal response made it clear that the only remaining popular meaning was the sense of fear. The dictionary these guys lists fear as the first meaning and retains understanding as at least a secondary meaning, but the popular meaning of understanding is basically lost now.

Ditto "fortuitous," which has come to mean fortunate, and there's little point pushing back any more. If you want to express the idea of randomly accidental, you are unlikely to find "fortuitous" useful. Languages do change.

Zachriel said...

Language can evolve rapidly due to technological change:

"Watching the tube" instead of Netflix and chill;
"Taping a show" instead of DVR or TiVoing;
"Wearing a wire" instead of pulling a Cohen.

Oddly enough, people still use the old words when they no longer have their original meaning. Really, when was the last time someone used a recording tape? Grandma, maybe? Yet the terms still have currency even among the youths. Maybe they saw it on YouTube.