Thursday, March 24, 2016

Another Distinction Lost

Linguists and dictionary makers divide those who care about language into "descriptivists" and "prescriptivists." Simply put, the former report how the language is used, while the latter make judgments as to how the language is used. I fall squarely into the camp of "I'm telling you, you're using the word incorrectly," but I know it is hopeless. The language changes. The language changes, unfortunately, "just between  you and I" because most people "literally" don't know what they're talking about. Language changes for the same reason that the Big Lie works--if you say it enough times, it becomes true. If everyone uses the wrong word, it becomes "for all intensive purposes" the right one.

Something can't be "very unique" because it is either one of a kind or it isn't. You can't get any "uniquer" than unique, yet my spell check doesn't even highlight "uniquer" so there's another battle lost.

The word "fulsome" is a polite word (or used to be) for "bullshit" (as in "fulsome praise") but now it seems to be an intensifier of "full." Being "artful" has nothing to do with being "artistic" or didn't, until recently.

And so when I saw the word "disinterested" used in a museum label today when what the writer really wanted to say was that McNamara was "uninterested" (if he was the former, he wouldn't have cared one way or the other) I knew another distinction was gone. It is fine for the descriptivists to take a disinterested approach to language but when two distinct words take on the same meaning the language gets just a little less precise. The language gets blurrier. And blurry, imprecise language is the refuge of politicians, advertisers, and other liars.

So, to whoever wrote the text in the label, I'm telling you, you're wrong. And, no, I don't know what you mean, anyway.

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