Orwell Watch #8: “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”


Our eighth Orwell Watch entry comes to us courtesy of Ben Yagoda at Slate:

Suppose a friend said to you, “I know you’re disinterested, so I want to ask you a question presently.” Then he didn’t say anything. Would you be momentarily nonplussed? Quite likely, yes. The above paragraph contains four words whose primary definitions have changed or are currently changing. Disinterested traditionally meant “impartial,” and now is generally used to mean “uninterested.” Presently has gone from “shortly” to “currently”; momentarily from “for a moment” to “in a moment”; and nonplussed from perplexed to unimpressed, or fazed to unfazed.

There’s not much for me to add to his column – others have done that already. The article concludes with three corrections in two days. On the third one, Yagoda gave up and called it an “update” to prevent further humiliation.

As he notes, words change meanings all the time. But there’s an ethical issue here – people using words they don’t fully understand to sound clever or give what is imagined to be a gloss of education on a banal idea.  Two counts for dishonesty of intent. However, Yagoda raises a different ethical issue, noting that words change meaning all the time, however glacially – that’s why we have OEDs:

This is a subset of the larger issue—an ethical one, really—of how we should deploy our language knowledge. Some people—often children of English teachers or Anglophiles—proudly wear their knowledge on their sleeve, and adopt hypercorrect linguistic behavior. Take Ray Magliozzi, the less laughter-prone of NPR’s Car Talk guys, who turns his sentences into pretzels so as to avoid ending them with prepositions: a “rule” that has been out of favor for roughly half a century. (Ray consequently favors the phrase “with which.”) I actually heard him use the word “shall” on last week’s show. A subclass of this group favors ur-renditions of common expressions. Adopting the diction of George Gissing or Walter Pater, they will choose stamping (instead of stomping) grounds, champing (instead of chomping) at the bit, pompons (instead of pompoms), or titbits (instead of tidbits).* Such archaism seems designed to attract attention, and nothing more.

What’s wrong with shall?  I lament that we are losing whole tenses – the useful subjunctive tense is disappearing in my own lifetime.  (See Correction #1 below.)

The comments section brings up a cornucopia of irritations:

Maggie Norris:  Sometimes when a word meaning morphs, we lose a good, useful word. Example: for several years now, scientists in all disciples have been using “methodology” when they mean “method.” Five syllables is always more important sounding than two, of course and lends credibility that a simple two-syllable word never could. But it leaves us without a word to use when we want to discuss the study or development of methods in science. Any suggestions? Scientists?

Pat Myers: “Nice” used to mean precise, as in “a nice distinction” — not long ago, it was considered incredibly sloppy to use it to mean pleasant. I bet you’d have a very high “wrong definition” result on “bemused” to mean wryly amused instead of befuddled. “Spoke warmly” in 19th-century books means what we’d now term “spoke heatedly.” “Amazed” used to mean totally confused — as if you were caught in a maze. As hard as it is for those of us editorial types who used to be paid real cash money to keep words’ meanings static, we sometimes have to accept that words’ meanings change — logically or il- — and have always changed.

Vville222: Does anyone else still understand the use of “me” in conjunction with another name or pronoun? It seems that there are fewer and fewer people willing to use the word me as object, substituting “I” in all cases where two or more individuals are referenced. It grates on my ear to hear such constructions as “They invited my wife and I to dinner.”

John Moore:  Let me quickly vent on this one: when did “could care less” start to mean “couldn’t care less”, as in “My girlfriend left me and I could care less?” Are we so lazy that we need to drop one of the syllables? I don’t have any additional insight into this, but I just want the world to know it ticks me off.

Vaughn Marlowe:  How did “issue” burst on the scene? It didn’t sneak up on us—it mugged us! A neighbor told me he had a flat tire “Issue.” I said it wasn’t an issue unless it was debatable. He was not amused.

And finally, lest you begin to feel self-righteous, a comment on the sort of people that get twisted up about these issues, from a 2001 interview with John McWhorter:

Q. You said that the most important fact about language is that it is undergoing constant change. Given that, how do you feel about language purists?

A. They labor under the misimpression that language only changes for the worse. They don’t understand that the language we are speaking now arose from the same kinds of changes that they today condemn as mistakes.

Q. Do you think there’s a psychological component to the positions of language purists?

A. I think language purists tend to be people who have a natural bent for order. I have some sympathy for them. In another universe, I could be one. If you’re a linguist, however, you see how ultimately illogical and hopeless this orientation is. Language never has followed the rules of logic.

Correction #1: See?  There’s something about this topic – you can’t write about it without making your own mistake.  Here’s the first, courtesy of Jeff Sypeck:  “Hi, Cynthia!  In your most recent blog post, you wrote: ‘I lament that we are losing whole tenses – the useful subjunctive tense is disappearing in my own lifetime.’  The problem is, the subjective isn’t a tense; it’s a mood.  Somewhere, my Latin teacher is beaming. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if you put that in there as correction-bait in the first place. :)” I didn’t. Leave it to a Latinist.  Mlle. Vance, bless her soul,  didn’t wedge this tidbit of knowledge in between teaching the imparfait and passé simple.

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