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Picture of pearce
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Posted 17 Feb, 2008 05:53, Wordcrafter pointed out that degraded words include libetine, leer, lewd, lust and
lascivious.
According to Bacon, "the first distemper of learning is when men study words and not matter."
There are many instances of words whose meaning has changed. Three main areas of change are hyperboles and understatements, elevation and degradation, and generalization and specification. Of thousands of such instances, one could cite:
Gay, decimate, fag, queer, basically, nice, amazing.

It is interesting how many refer to sexual practices with derogatory, judgemental implications.

Overuse is one of the main ingredients of degradation, which has diminished the precise meaning of many words, especially in science, such as parameter, awesome, impact.
I am sure you all have your favourites.

But there is a fine line between prescriptivism and the acknowledgement of the gradual modification with time of English usage. Not all changes would I regard as degraded, but there are many of them, which impoverish our ability to communicate effectively. Kingsley Amis in The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage frequently speaks about words made unusable by overuse, a view I endorse. But these words persist, are still commonly flogged to death, and are irritatingly slow to perish.
A rich source of language abuse can be found in The Dimwit's Dictionary: 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives ... By Robert Hartwell Fiske.

The related polemic surrounding jargon, is a subject for another day.
 
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A lot of good points made here. I would agree with all that you have said. I put a lot of it down to Pop Culture which in my opinion has sucked the life out of a good many words.

I would love to be able to travel back in time to experience the evolution of the english language as words first arrived on the scene when many were at their very, very best.


walrus
 
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People have been complaining about English words being diminished in meaning since the 18th century... and people have been complaining about it in Latin since the first century BC. With all this degradation going on, how can we still communicate?

quote:
I would love to be able to travel back in time to experience the evolution of the english language as words first arrived on the scene when many were at their very, very best.


Many words were borrowed into English from French or Latin, and others developed from Proto-Germanic thru Old English. In every case, the meanings have changed along the way. "nice" meant "ignorant" in Latin, then "silly" in "Old French". "weird" meant "fate" in Old English, and comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "bend".

How far back do you have to go to find the true, pure, best meaning of a word?

I've read The Dimwit's Dictionary, and I'm amazed at Fiske's lack of understanding of the history and meaning of English words. He thinks that dictionaries are wrong because they record how words are used, but he has special super powers that tell him what words really mean, regardless of how they're actually used.
 
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"Degraded" is an emotive word that doesn't apply to these words. The meaning of words change over the years. That is normal, part of evolution of the language, not degradation.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by walrus:

I would love to be able to travel back in time to experience the evolution of the english language as words first arrived on the scene when many were at their very, very best.


walrus


Isn't that happening right here and right now? Wink
 
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There are some simple laws to remember when considering the Weltanschauung of the typical linguistic Cassandra:


  • Language evolved up until the moment that Cassandra was in grammar school; thereafter it devolved.

  • All language change is evil.

  • The agents of language change are the Other.

  • History, linguistics, logic, and literature are irrelevant; all language change is evil, damn it! Why don't you understand?

  • There is only authority in matters of grammar and usage, i.e., Cassandra herself.

  • All words ought to have one meaning, which happens to be the one Cassandra learned in grammar school. Synonymy, homonymy, and polysemicity are to be eschewed and deprecated.

  • All hail Bishop Lowth and his disciples Henry Fowler, Strunk & White, John Simon, Lynne Truss, and Bryan Garner. All vituperate Webster's Third International, linguists, lexicographers, authors who err, and the Other.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Now then zm, let's not scare the newbies away. Smile
 
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let's not scare the newbies away

I'm sure they started filtering me before they arrived.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by arnie:
"Degraded" is an emotive word that doesn't apply to these words. The meaning of words change over the years. That is normal, part of evolution of the language, not degradation.
Indeed, arnie. I believe the precise linguistic term is 'perjoration', but I didn't want to define that as well, so I settled on a term that's less precise but more familiar.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
There are some simple laws to remember when considering the Weltanschauung of the typical linguistic Cassandra:

It was Wordcrafter who used the word degraded (Posted 17 Feb, 2008 05:53), which I then went on to discuss. Zmj's irony is not wholly wasted, but might be seen as a little one-sided. I suggested, for discussion that "there is a fine line between prescriptivism and the acknowledgement of the gradual modification with time of English usage.Not all changes would I regard as degraded,…"
When one of the small sample of words I cited is used excessively, or its application is widened, the sharper more exact meaning is inevitably blurred, and one has to seek for some more precise alternative, which may or may not exist. That I think is what Kingsley Amis, inter alia, meant by saying it becomes unusable. I am sure zmj would not disagree with this. Amis also refers to 'careful word users and usage', which surely is to be commended without inviting the damning indictment of being a linguistic Cassandra.
Whereas language always is in a state of flux, changes in usage can individually be construed as improvement or worsening. Some such judgments are a matter of taste and choice, others are careless and weaken the instruments of communication.
 
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You will have to do better then that to scare me away zmjezd Big Grin
 
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quote:
All hail Bishop Lowth and his disciples Henry Fowler ...

I'd agree with the other people being on the list of disciples to some degree, but not Fowler.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by pearce:
When one of the small sample of words I cited is used excessively, or its application is widened, the sharper more exact meaning is inevitably blurred, and one has to seek for some more precise alternative, which may or may not exist. That I think is what Kingsley Amis, inter alia, meant by saying it becomes unusable. I am sure zmj would not disagree with this.


I don't disagree with that either, but I also don't think it's a problem. If we need a new word, we'll find one.
 
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When one of the small sample of words I cited is used excessively, or its application is widened, the sharper more exact meaning is inevitably blurred, and one has to seek for some more precise alternative, which may or may not exist. That I think is what Kingsley Amis, inter alia, meant by saying it becomes unusable. I am sure zmj would not disagree with this. Amis also refers to 'careful word users and usage', which surely is to be commended without inviting the damning indictment of being a linguistic Cassandra.

I'm not sure I agree that frequency of use drains a word of its exact meaning. Also, as we have discussed many times before on this hallowed board, many words have more than one meaning. How do the users of language manage? Well, words are hardly ever used in isolation. They usual come in packs of words called sentences. And sentences hardly ever come along alone either. They usually come in larger structures called stories, essays, conversations, etc. Words are used in a context, and that context helps to narrow the meaning. I don't think Mr Amis would've disagreed with me on that, since he was a writer and a damned fine one.

As goofy suggests (below), if a word's meaning has changed so much that one of its older meaning is no longer evident to the audience, a good writer will choose another one. Telling stories or writing articles is not about telling somebody something they already know, they're about imparting new information in pleasing ways.

There are many folks I meet regularly online and off-, (some of whom are 'careful word users' while others are not), that I would describe as linguistic Cassandras. They're always bemoaning the fate of English at the mouths of teens, foreigners, women, ethnic minorities, et al. Some word they've cherished has been used in such a way to suggest a new meaning. These people annoy me. They often get their facts wrong and are unaware of the history of a word or its usage outside of some skinny little book of the Strunk & White variety. They're always going on about grammar, and yet few of them has ever touched, read, or studied one.

Whereas language always is in a state of flux, changes in usage can individually be construed as improvement or worsening. Some such judgments are a matter of taste and choice, others are careless and weaken the instruments of communication.

A language is a system, and a self-regulating one at that. As a language changes over its history words come and go, meanings alter or disappear, but communication goes on. The Early Middle English speaker of the 13th century would be incomprehensible to the 10th century Old English speaker, but who is to say whose language was better or more elegant. These qualities are not a part of the language but of the person who uses the language. Using a language poorly does not affect the language. The converse is true also. The writings and speech of Tennyson and Wilde did nothing to improve the language of the typical, East End, working-class illiterate. Shakespeare and Jonson didn't stop the Thames dock worker from speaking as he did. All of those people were more or less aware of the registers the others used, but it usually had little effect on their respective usages or vocabulary.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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"…These people annoy me."
Why show the intensity of your annoyance by condescending to teach us all:
“ words are hardly ever used in isolation. They usual come in packs of words called sentences. And sentences hardly ever come along alone either. They usually come in larger structures called stories, essays, conversations, etc.”
I would hazard a guess that most of us were aware of that, and also knew that word meanings change, sometimes drastically.

I doubt that the use of good or bad English is a function of being: “teens, foreigners, women, ethnic minorities, et al.” Like you I wouldn't accept many of the dictats of Strunk & White and many others, though I wouldn't presume to criticise their knowledge, reading or scholarship before they wrote their books.

I have to disagree with you, zmj when you say: “The writings and speech of Tennyson and Wilde did nothing to improve the language of the typical, East End, working-class illiterate. Shakespeare and Jonson didn't stop the Thames dock worker from speaking as he did. .”

Many children are exposed to good writer and taught the virtues and faults i in schools; sometimes well taught, sometimes not. The more fortunate learn by example form their parents and families. But I guess that many East enders and London dockers did pick up fragments small and large from others, and a few of them went on to be acclaimed writers. Shakespeare is said to have introduced 1500 to 1700 words into English, and many phrases and quotations used frequently by well and poorly educated people alike. So I believe that he and many other writers did materially contribute to changes in language among all classes.

Finally, If English teachers don't "go on about grammar", spelling, selection of words in their contexts, how will children learn to write and speak plain English, let alone acquire a sensitivity for words and love of language? A laissez faire approach would I think lead to chaos and poor communication.…”These people annoy me.”…”These people annoy me.”
 
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Why show the intensity of your annoyance by condescending to teach us all.

Sorry if I seemed condescending. I was just responding to your earlier statements. I disagree with them. You disagree with me. I think we'll both live.

Finally, If English teachers don't "go on about grammar", spelling, selection of words in their contexts, how will children learn to write and speak plain English, let alone acquire a sensitivity for words and love of language? A laissez faire approach would I think lead to chaos and poor communication. … ”These people annoy me.” … ”These people annoy me.”

I never said that English grammar, usage, and writing shouldn't be taught. I just wish that people who complain about the English language going to hell in a hand basket would bother to take the time to become informed on language, grammar, and what people have been writing about them for the past couple of hundred years.

I just don't think that hundreds of semi-literate teens texting SMS to each other is going to have a big impact on the English language. It's survived worse, and it'll do so again.

Maybe we should just ignore one another from now on. I know I'll try ...

[Corrected typo.]

This message has been edited. Last edited by: zmježd,


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by pearce:
Finally, If English teachers don't "go on about grammar", spelling, selection of words in their contexts, how will children learn to write and speak plain English, let alone acquire a sensitivity for words and love of language? A laissez faire approach would I think lead to chaos and poor communication.


I don't think anyone here is arguing for a laissez-faire approach. I wish students were taught more about the grammar of English as it is actually used, rather than the grammar of Truss and Garner, so that they can develop informed opinions about how language works.

However, I don't believe that a laissez-faire approach would lead to chaos and poor communication. If teaching grammar is necessary for good communication, then how did English speakers communicate before the 18th century, when grammar was taught? A standard English lets us communicate with speakers of other kinds of English, so it very useful, and I'm all for it. But if all the grammar books and linguists disappeared tomorrow, nothing would happen to English that hasn't been happening to language for thousands of years.
 
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According to the World Clock the world's population at this moment is 6.654 billion. I have no "scientific evidence" for my belief but I estimate that roughly 99.99 percent of these 6.654 billion people are not even aware of "language" as an important ingredient of their lives. Like the butterfly is probably unaware of the air it flutters through and the fish is unaware of the water.
 
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Interesting clock, Jerry.

I followed your link, goofy to the Amazon website. I'm glad you mentioned the book. Google books has a preview of it: A Student's Introduction to English Grammar
 
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quote:
Also, as we have discussed many times before on this hallowed board,
Hardly "hallowed," but certainly spirited!

I used to be a prescriptivist, and I am a little guilty about it because I taught my college students with that attitude. I pushed Strunk and White on them and probably limited some of their creativity. Interestingly, what z has said above is very descriptive of my prescriptivism. While I insisted on "accurate" grammar, and the like, I hadn't read much on linguistics and grammar (this occurred before this board). Since posting here, I've done a lot of reading and have completely changed my position on prescriptivism and Strunk and White. But it's too late for those I taught. I just hope they were critical thinkers who could figure out on their own that I was wrong.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
I disagree with them. You disagree with me. I think we'll both live.

… I just wish that people who complain about the English language going to hell in a hand basket would bother to take the time to become informed on language, grammar, and what people have been writing about them for the past couple of hundred years.

Maybe we should just ignore one another from now on. I know I'll try ...
[Corrected typo.]

We certainly have our differences zmj,
In fact my views are I hope even handed. I plainly said "there is a fine line between prescriptivism and the acknowledgement of the gradual modification with time of English usage. Not all changes would I regard as degraded,…"
And, you now acknowledge the value of teaching of grammar, usage and writing, as does Goofy.
But "ignore you", Sorry, No Way. You are far too full of linguistic knowledge for that, and I pretend no expertise in that subject. I have no more time than you for the dogmatic hypercritical approaches of Truss, Strunk & White et al., but like Amis whom you do admire and the Fowlers, they are provocative and teach many of us to think about the ways we use language. It would be a dull, sad world if we couldn't amicably have our differences, but please ignore me if you wish!
 
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you now acknowledge the value of teaching of grammar, usage and writing, as does Goofy.

I don't believe I've ever advocated not teaching grammar, usage, and writing. It's just that goofy, I, and a whole bunch of other people have a different view of what grammar and usage is and how it should be taught. I regularly tutor some friends in Latin and am constantly correcting their pronunciation and grammar. I appreciate that writing is a craft that is best honed by exposure to great writing as well some abstract teaching of theory. (I've made my living for the past 20 years as a technical writer.) But when a fellow writer parrots some rubbish from one of those usage booklets,, I tell them why I think they and those prescriptive authors are wrong.

It would be a dull, sad world if we couldn't amicably have our differences, but please ignore me if you wish!

OK, perhaps I overreacted. Yes, I am sorry I was so gruff. The truth is, I've never been able to ignore anybody on this board.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Teaching grammatical rules is important - if only because it is important for people to know that there are rules. Once one accepts this fact, then one will often take the trouble to determine the correct rule that applies in any given situation.

Anarchy is not a comfortable thing - even in language.


Richard English
 
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Most people speak perfectly well without formally being taught the rules. No descriptivist I've ever know suggests that there are no rules or that the rules are not important. Where the descriptivist and the prescriptivist part company is how to determine what the rules are. The only, valid way to determine what the grammar of a language is is by studying how the language is actually used and describing it. Of course, what group of language users is studied will determine the grammar. Prescriptivists tend to make up rules based not on how the language is and has been used, but on some rather quirky, idiosyncratic, criteria. They tend to say "this is how people say something, and they're wrong, I tell you!" So, for instance, using the they for singular, non-gender-specific referent is wrong, even though some of our finest authors have used it in the past 600 years. That rule has nothing to do with grammar. It has something to do with logic, social theories, or politics, but not grammar.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by tinman:
I followed your link, goofy to the Amazon website. I'm glad you mentioned the book. Google books has a preview of it: A Student's Introduction to English Grammar


I haven't read it, but it is by the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language so I have some faith in it. Geoffrey Pullum is known for his anti-prescriptivist rants .
 
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Geoffrey Pullum

Damn, I love how that man rants. He is a great linguist, a superb grammarian, and a humorous writer. (I recommend his The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language (1991) for examples of all three qualifications.) The second rant mentions WritersUA, a conference that I've presented at. Joe Welinske, the guy who runs that conference has made a goodly habit of inviting linguists to come and give talks. The year I was there, it was the Australian linguist, Professor Kate Burridge, whom I've mentioned more than once here abouts. I would've loved to have gone to the one which Pullum attended. Thanks, goofy.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Pullum strikes again (link) and just in time for Annoy a Prescriptivist Day tomorrow (link). It's a linguistic meta-rant about an article by Professor David Gelernter in The Weekly Standard (link).
quote:
No, it is not Gelernter's high indignation-to-expertise ratio that amazes me, but his unbelievable level of anger. The "language rapists" have deliberately destroyed our native tongue and people's ability to write it, he claims: "The well-aimed torpedo of Feminist English has sunk the whole process of teaching students to write... we used to expect every educated citizen to write decently—and that goal is out the window." Education has been ruined: "we graduate class after class of young Americans who will never be able to write down their thoughts effectively". The whole United States has been ruined: "the country is filling up gradually with people who have been reared on ugly, childish writing and will never expect anything else".

I'd like to assume that intellectual content can speak for itself rather than having to be diagnosed ad hominem as a symptom of broader personal character, but I found it hard to read Gelernter without reflecting on the fact that in 1993 he became one of the victims of a deranged terrorist, 'Unabomber' Ted Kaczynski; he was badly injured by a letter bomb and suffered permanent damage to his right hand and eye. I found myself wondering whether his very understandable rage against protesters who favor violence was bubbling up and infecting his attitude toward women, progressivism, political correctness, students, everything.

And one quotation from the Gerlernter article:
quote:
Occasionally one sees "s/he," which shows not indifference but outright contempt for the language and the reader.

Makes me want to fetch my Lynne Truss appalled marker to hand and scribble on some vertical writing surface s/he, j/e suis, to be, et cetera.

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Gelernter's article really is incredible. Sometimes Pullum just gets handed these. His rant practically writes itself.
 
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It was worth reading all that tosh for the belly-laugh I got from

quote:
E.B. White was our greatest modern source of the purest, freshest, clearest, most bracing English, straight from a magic spring that bubbled for him alone.
 
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I especially noticed this phrase in Gelernter's rant:
quote:
... related deformities blossom like blisters ...
Deformities blossom? And what flowers do blisters bear?


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
There are some simple laws to remember when considering the Weltanschauung of the typical linguistic Cassandra:

[LIST]
  • Language evolved up until the moment that Cassandra was in grammar school; thereafter it devolved.

  • All language change is evil.

  • History, linguistics, logic, and literature are irrelevant; all language change is evil, damn it! Why don't you understand?


  • Ha ha! This is droll. It reminded me of my masters at a hill country boarding school. They would have preached this gospel for sure.
     
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    quote:
    I think I am a pieriansipist

    Well, someone has to be Wink

    And welcome to our board - I am sure you'll like it here.


    Richard English
     
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    quote:
    Originally posted by Richard English:
    quote:
    I think I am a pieriansipist

    Well, someone has to be Wink

    And welcome to our board - I am sure you'll like it here.


    Thanks for the welcome. As for the pieriansipist thing, I see that a favourite podcast of mine has also been toying with the word: http://www.podictionary.com I guess there are probably a lot of old dabblers like me out there. For me, I guess trying to keep up with new words and changing language use might be my way of overlooking the nasty way my age is threatening to overtake my IQ.
     
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