Thursday, 19 November 2009

mind your language

Language is the tool that we use when we want to communicate our thoughts and ideas to other people. This is such an obvious statement, something that we take absolutely for granted, that we don’t bother to expend further thought on the subject. But that’s because we don’t realize that an important question is being begged: when we speak or write, how do we know that what we think we mean by our choice and ordering of words is what our listener or reader understands us to mean? How can we be sure there is no comprehension gap?

This dilemma extends beyond words to include gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication. In his capacity as vice-president of the United States, Dan Quayle was once asked what he thought of a prominent Latin American politician. The vice-president responded by extending his right hand with the palm forward and the thumb and forefinger joined to form a circle, which every American will tell you means top notch, first class, A1, or some more suitably convincing American idiom.

However, millions throughout South America knew exactly what Vice-President Quayle was really saying.


Nevertheless, it is with words that the real problem lies. Ideas don’t spring into existence fully formed, with pros and cons set out in a neat series of bullet points; they start as feelings, expressed inwardly in a way that scarcely uses words at all. Such instincts and intuitions allow us to look at an object or assess a situation and interpret it in a way that we immediately and precisely understand in our own minds, without using words. However, once we try to describe that idea or that sensation to another person, the only available medium for communication is words, perhaps reinforced by gestures and facial expressions. Unfortunately, it is impossible to write a book about what goes on inside your head, or even to describe to another what is going on at any given moment. The words simply don’t exist. So language, in the sense of a sequence of sounds or letters ordered semantically to convey meaning, is essentially a compromise.

You can go into a pub, order a pint of bitter and be certain that the barman will not give you a pint of lager and a packet of crisps. If you are a regular in the pub, the barman may pull the pint of bitter without being asked, knowing with the uncanny insight of the practised professional that we are all creatures of habit at root. However, this is communication at a very superficial level. If you try to express an opinion on the pint of bitter, the chances are that you will find yourself using words and phrases that you’ve heard someone else use in a similar context. How often have you heard a wine expert describing the bouquet of a wine in terms of oranges, lemons, blackcurrants, raspberries and sundry other soft fruit? It’s nonsense, of course, but the expert doesn’t have at his or her disposal the tools to be more precise. The bouquet may provide specific information to the expert nose, such as the variety of grape and the region where the wine was produced, but the expert is trying to describe what is essentially a personal reaction in words that someone else will understand. They do understand, but in a debased form. The fine details are lost. But it’s a loss that goes unnoticed by most people, because the expert never stops to think how well they might be communicating their thoughts, and their listeners merely take the words at face value.

Another difficulty is created by the fluidity of meaning of words and, especially, phrases. A phrase often changes meaning as a result of a misunderstanding, the differences between American and British English being notably fertile ground for such occurrences. A classic case is the now hackneyed phrase ‘to make the grade’. Not much room for ambiguity there, you will probably think if you’re British. It means ‘to reach the required standard’. Surely that’s obvious? But the phrase is actually nineteenth-century American railroad slang. When you recall that in American usage a ‘grade’ can mean what the British would term a ‘gradient’, you see that a wholesale change in meaning has taken place. For the engineer in one of those old wood-burning locomotives that finally tamed the American West, to make the grade meant to reach the top of a particularly tough incline. When it eventually escaped into the general population, it was as a vivid metaphor with the meaning of succeeding in a particularly difficult endeavour, but once the phrase had been dislocated from its metaphorical background, the force of that meaning soon evaporated. All that remains today is a cliché with only a vague meaning. The force of the original metaphor has been lost.

If all that was at stake was the continuing survival of a few hackneyed phrases, then there would be no problem. You can always fall back on the original words and eschew any attempt at metaphor. Unfortunately, the idea or concept behind some of the words that are affected by this change, which proceeds entirely from ignorance and a tendency to jump to conclusions, cannot be otherwise expressed in a single word. And as each word undergoes such a change, the language itself is diminished. If English is a toolbox from which a scrupulous communicator selects only the most appropriate implement, then we’ve just lost a tool, or had it blunted at best.

When a BBC journalist referred to the enormity of the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, he should have had precisely the right tool for the job. But ‘enormity’ is one of those words that has shifted in meaning, leaving behind a valuable descriptive word for which there is now no precise equivalent. As it happens, this report provides a perfect example of how promiscuous misuse of our language is having a damaging effect. So what did the journalist really mean? Although he might have been impressed by the sheer scale of the attacks, these were, above all else, examples of great moral wickedness, the meaning of ‘enormity’ that is still clung to by the dictionaries. However, most people now appear to believe that ‘enormity’ is the noun equivalent to the adjective ‘enormous’. It is true that both words derive from the same root, but the divorce in meaning was once almost total, the notion of size in ‘enormity’ referring only to the scale of the iniquity involved. The idea that something describable as ‘very large’ is being referred to is a recent invention born out of a careless disregard for the importance of meaning in communication. And did we really need to add to a mountain of synonyms?

In the end, perhaps the words are simply too similar in appearance to have avoided this confusion, because commonality of origin is not a problem. Nobody would claim any affinity in meaning between ‘legal’ and ‘loyal’, yet both derive from the Latin word for ‘law’, lex, with the Latin suffix -al. The difference is that ‘legal’ comes directly from Latin, while ‘loyal’ is from Latin via French. The similarity in meaning could have been retained, as has happened with a similar doublet, ‘regal’ and ‘royal’, which both derive from the Latin rex, ‘king’, but perhaps in the case of ‘legal’ and ‘loyal’ it proved possible to reassign ‘loyal’ to a new billet because there was a need. New words are required all the time, not only to describe new circumstances and new situations but also to replace old ones that have become debased through careless misuse. Meaning once shaped by hands wearing surgical gloves is now being moulded by hands wearing boxing gloves, with a concomitant decline in precision.

Exaggeration can also be a problem. To satisfy the needs of each new generation for its own cant, we are no longer able to describe something taken from a fable as ‘fabulous’, something out of a fantasy as ‘fantastic’, something that we might marvel at as ‘marvellous’, something that fills us with amazement as ‘amazing’. Each of these words now means little more than ‘I like this’. And as the process continues, something that fills us with awe will not be describable as ‘awesome’, and ‘brilliant’ as a word to describe something shining with an intense light will become obsolete.

“What do you think of that new night club in the town centre?”


“How was your holiday in Tenerife?”


You see the problem.

For a reductio ad absurdum of this trend, we turn to the Chinese, who have been known to abandon meaning altogether. If you walk through the shopping streets of Hong Kong and Kowloon, it will not be long before you spot a few shop names that nobody in their right mind would dream of using in the heartlands of the English language. Perfect Corporation. Sincere Department Store. Treasure Restaurant. Grand Hotel. The Magnificent Company, if it exists, and it may well do, will be no more than a small office somewhere in one of the less salubrious districts of Kowloon with a desk, two chairs and, possibly, a secretary. Any idea of magnificence will be purely imaginary. To imagine otherwise is to miss the point. Language matters.


  1. This is not a post, it is an academic paper - erudite and well-written. I am very careful here otherwise you might make fun of my writing, which is not very effective.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. I am following your blog now and hope to get to read posts as this one.

    Splendid, by Jove, I say!

    Joy and peace,

  2. Thank you Susan. I'd never make fun of someone's writing: we all have our individual styles, and my only concern is that people use that style and choose their words to communicate as accurately and as succinctly as possible. I don't always live up to my own ideals, but I always try.

    Not all my existing posts are this long, but a lot of them are. I hope you find at least some of them interesting/enjoyable.

  3. Interesting points here. I think that if used in the UK, "enormity" would still, notwithstanding the degradation of its meaning, be understood in its original sense.

  4. Wow that is surely something else. It's ingenious. Unparalleled look into communication. Brilliant. The enormity of the article.......ok, I can't use any more words like that :) This is a really valid point that most people will never, in the hustle and bustle of a normal day, will never get a chance to stop and think about. I'm guilty of ruining the meaning of words by using them at highly inappropriate times, never really realizing that when the time comes that only that word would have done, I won't have it in my arsenal (or my vocabulary) to do the trick. Thanks for the insight.


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