What’s the Big Deal?

Words change. Counterfeit once designated a legitimate copy. Zeal, now signifying positive enthusiasm, used to imply an unhealthy single-mindedness (as preserved in zealot). My favorite: manufacture, which every first-year Latin student can tell you means “make by hand.” And so it was, until the meaning drifted into the industrial age.

And that’s the beauty of English — it’s arguably the most flexible language on Earth. We make nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives at a moment’s notice. At Lexicide, we’re in no mood to kvetch about impact as a verb or other useful (if inelegant) constructions. What we object to is the purposeful “re-purposing” of words because of ignorance and pretense. We hate to see the nuances of the English language watered down or eliminated. Where once words like verbiage, peruse, unique and leverage carried special meanings, now they only duplicate existing words. To express their original nuances, one must resort to clumsy multi-word phrases. This did not happen organically. This happened in the course of years or months, often driven by the propensity in business to obfuscate. The Lexicide authors are professional writers, and if anyone can explain to us why it is so necessary to be unclear and passive in business writing, we would welcome the education.

So why do we fuss so much about dying definitions? Why do we insist on holding the line when everyone else happily jumps on the board the Lexicide Express, mowing down handy, one-of-a-kind (See? We can’t even use the word unique here!) words in favor of a kind of vulgar Newspeak? I guess it depends on who you ask. If you ask us, it’s because we love language. We protect and draw attention to endangered animals. Why not endangered meanings? We do it because we care about effective and artful expression and preserving the tools to make it happen.

If you ask our wives, it’s because we’re pretentious snobs who like to lord it over others. (Sigh) So misunderstood…

Note: All the examples of shifting word meanings come from The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, a favorite authority on words and language.

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