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Category Archives: words and meaning

I am glad to say that I didn’t leave Lynn Truss’s talk feeling inadequate when it comes to my skills with the English language. In fact, I felt the emphasis on convention rather than rule was refreshing and honest, reflecting a pragmatic attitude to English grammar and acknowledging changes over time which, doubtless, will continue.

The focus was on the purpose of punctuation: the meaning-making that is an essential process of writing.  Not that perfect punctuation can ensure perfect understanding (‘I know you like the back of my hand’ vs ‘I know you like the back of my hand’) but it can help (‘The Queen: without her, dinner is noisy’ vs ‘The Queen without her dinner, is noisy’).

An interesting point was brought out by a questioner: is this lack of interest in punctuation linked to a lack of interest in thinking of the needs of others? Do we think the recipient is responsible for finding the meaning in a message, rather than it being the role of the writer to punctuate it correctly to give the meaning?

Two questions mentioned ‘text speak’ and how it might be part of the decline (symptomatic if not causal), but another mentioned the telex machine which also used a system of abbreviations. An essential difference is of course the number of people who have some experience of text-speak (either using it or have to decipher it) compared with telex users (who must have been relatively rare.)

The one area where I disagreed with Truss was her imagining of a future where all punctuation disappeared. I can’t imagine, since English took up punctuation to enable it to develop a greater level of sophistication, it reverting to a punctuation-free form again whilst it is still written down.

Bath Literature Festival 2012

I wish to start by stating that I am not a member of the word police (if such an organisation exists) and if it doesn’t that I’m not advocating we form one. I’d be continually having my collar felt as I’m sure I commit word crimes every time I speak or put fingers to keyboard; bad spellers don’t vote for spelling bees.

However as much as I love the flexibility of the English language and love the way it gets flexed, there are dangers that if we take it beyond its elastic limit it sustains permanent change that we never intended.

Language changes as we change, it’s a fact of English, resisting this generally only ends up making you look like King Canute. But I’d like to make a plea on behalf of the words that have no synonym. These, it would seem to me, are the ones that might need protection or at least someone to speak in their defence.

Though words have meaning expressed in dictionaries if we assign them new meanings (which is a polite way of saying ‘if we habitually misuse them’) the dictionary definition will change. This can be an economic thing, we take words and phrases that had one meaning in one age but are no longer needed so refit them for a new one, eg powder room.

However, other words get redefined bit by bit and we are left with the old word with a new meaning but no word for the old meaning. Amateur, for instance once meant doing something for the love of it, that certainly is its root, but how often do you see it used to mean that? Could you get away with calling someone an amateur and not have it sound insulting on almost every occasion?

I think we have lost the battle with that one, and decimate is going the same way. It means reduce by a tenth but on every occasion I hear it being used it sounds like the speaker means reduce to a tenth. Now if this is majority view this will in time be the meaning of the word, but why I am prepared to get my feel wet is… what do we call reducing by a tenth when we have lost the only word we have to describe it? We already have words that describe almost complete loss, we don’t need another word.

Think the loss of decimate is no loss? Consider this.  Unique is unique. It doesn’t mean rare or unusual or scarce. Those words describe at least the possibility of more than one occurence, unique means only one. Except of course if we keep misusing it and it will be lost with no way to quickly sum up the fact there is only one of something left, that what we are seeing we will see nowhere else.

Do spare a thought for the uniqueness of unique next time you use. It’s special so worth keeping for special occasions when it really deserves to get used.

I heard a news item on Radio 4 yesterday about the release of what would be the world’s largest thesaurus, drawing on entries from the Oxford English Dictionary. Seeing a message on Twitter linking to the news story ( I quickly RTed the good news; well, it is the sort of thing you would want to share isn’t it (humour me here).

I was delighted and somewhat surprised to receive a reply (from someone who’s blushes I shall spare) saying that they had misread the message and thought it was reporting the discovery of a new dinosaur.

Well, on hearing that an image of the creature popped into my head. The mighty and terrible Thesaurus Rex, running amok in the Glasgow Public Library heading for the reference section. Brave librarians try to fend him off with those wooden poles with the hooks on the end you use to open high windows, but to no avail. Now there’s nothing left of their Encyclopedia Britannica but  bits of chewed cover.

The story of the thesaurus is a gem. A project started in 1965 that grew on a diet of good ideas (“I know, why don’t we include this as well?” Ring any bells? Every been involved in a project like this?) At one point almost destroyed by a fire but saved from having being stored in a metal filing cabinet (and you can picture it can’t you, paint singed and blistered but defiant.) And now, after over forty years, it’s finally complete in all its blue cloth and gold-leaved glory. I’d actually quite like a copy but I’m afraid to even look at the price. Plus I don’t know if I can trust it in the same bookcase as my dictionary of physics.

I spent today in a long discussion on words and phrases and their meanings. Not an idle conversation but one aimed at updating a vocabulary, and then establishing a thesaurus, my particular interest.

For me, my interest in this started in a lunch queue. During a conference in Manchester a couple of years ago, I overheard the two people ahead of me listing all the different ways they had come across intending to convey the concept of widening participation. It was a surprisingly long list and, musing on other similar examples, got me thinking about how we ever understand one another at all, when we use multiple terms to describe one thing and between us ascribe multiple meanings to one phrase.

Added to that, the change of terms that seem to be sometimes no more than fashion, trying to establish a vocabulary that will last is no small task. The thesaurus that goes with it, built on the phases currently in use, is a way of dealing with those variations of phrase without prescribing how people should express themselves.