Thursday, 10 September 2015

Tablets of Stone

When one complains about the latest ugly illiteracy, one is often accused of wanting the English Language to be inscribed on stone tablets, immutable, no words not so inscribed allowed, and certainly no changes in meaning and usage of established words and phrases.

I want nothing of the sort of course, but the engine of linguistic change has always been ignorance — I challenge readers to find a counter-example; a change in usage or meaning not so caused — and, always, something is lost. What happens is that some semi-literate person such as a BBC presenter can’t be bothered to understand the established meaning of, say, the phrase ‘Begs the question’ — it is, or was, admittedly a touch tricky — but thinks it sounds good, and would like to impress people by using it. It sounds to his simple mind as if it means ‘Invites the question’, and so he uses it like that, and thousands hear him, and — because the BBC is, or was, the touchstone for good English — use it themselves like that. And because majority usage is now the sole determinant of meaning, that becomes what the phrase now means.

All I want to do really is draw attention to what is happening; the furthest I might go is to declare it regrettable and ugly, but I know it’s inevitable. To take another example, which, again, I heard on the BBC: one of those air-heads they now like to employ said ‘I was literally decimated.’ She meant ‘I was a little disturbed’. Is it wrong of me to point out what ‘literally’ and ‘decimated’ used to mean? Granted, it is perhaps a touch mean of me to suggest exactly which tenth part of her had been destroyed.

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