5.6 – the “rot” in our language

1. nice


…has consecutively meant “ignorant”, “shy”, “delicate”, “fine”, “pleasant” over the last few centuries…


…how did we manage?

…should we revert to the first meaning?

…or the meaning(s) that Shakespeare used?

2. aggravate


There are currently two meanings of the word “aggravate”. One is “to make worse or more serious”, the other is “to irritate”.


The question as things stand: is there a problem of ambiguity?


And which of the “uses” of the term aggravate is the “correct one”?


Does the idea of the “correct” use of a word have any legitimacy? Can you incorrectly use a word?


If we had to decide between one or the other, then surely we should take the meaning which was in existence first –the meaning of “to make worse or more serious”… the argument from precedence.


There is another “sound” reason for choosing the former meaning – the argument from etymology – where does the word “aggravate” come from? The word is derived from the Latin – “Gravis” meaning heavy, which was how it entered our language – being used to refer to something which made matters worse, more serious, or weightier.


So the first use of the term has precedence as well as a solid history – it makes more sense – so we should, as many prescriptivists would have us do, suppress the second use of the term.


Or should two uses co-exist?


            …as with “to go”, which can mean “to depart” as in “I’m going now”; “to travel”, as in “I’m going to London”; or “to work”, as in “the clock won’t go”. There is no problem with ambiguity with the many uses or meanings of the term “to go”, a much more commonly used term, so why should there be with “aggravate”?


Are the argument from precedence and the argument from etymology nothing but rationalisations for prejudice?


Why would prejudice exist around the use of such a term?


The first meaning – “to make worse or more serious” – has been confined to more learned circles and formal, “correctly written” documents., whilst the second meaning has been confined to more colloquial, spoken and informal texts. there is therefore a certain positive prestige attached to the former and a negative prestige attached to the latter, just as there is a certain prestige attached to the use of the terms “former” and “latter” as opposed to the terms “first” and “second”.


3. hopefully


This hapless adverb proved to be the source of much heated debate in the 1970s.


How was this adverb to be used “correctly”?


a)      As a manner adverb… “She sat there hopefully.” …i.e. “She sat there in a hopeful manner.”




b)      To modify a whole sentence… “Hopefully, it won’t rain tomorrow.” …i.e. “It is to be hope that it won’t rain tomorrow.”


Why this issue was so contentious can perhaps be explained by the fact that the former is a distinctly British use of the word, whereas the latter is an American invention.


However, the following adverbs had been used in both ways for quite some time:


“He acted naturally.” & “Naturally I’ll do it.”

“She sang sadly.” & “Sadly I can’t.”

“They played happily.” & “Happily, he came on time.”


            …in each case, the former being an example of the word being used as a manner adverb and the latter an example of the word being used as sentence adverb


So, is the “hopefully” case one of:


a)      a natural linguistic change where the word is just falling in with patterns of usage, an already well-established adverbial pattern




b)      the invidious influence of American English via the American dominated media


In 1974 there was quite the furore, with the latte usage being labelled “this barbaric Americanism”, a “corruption of the language” and at the very least, leading to “possible confusion”. However, by 1980 it was no longer an issue and the matter had been forgotten.


Is this a simple case of an objection to change as change?


Why wasn’t there consternation at the manner in which “haughty” had lost its original meaning – “noble, exalted”, leaving only “disdainfully proud, snobbish”? Nor when the word “dulcify” was dropped from usage? Why was there no campaign to resuscitate this word?



4. disinterested


This is a word which is causing a lot of “problems” of late. The problem extends from the meaning of the word “interested”, which has two different meanings:


a)      “being personally involved in” – as in “I am an interested party in this dispute.” Which was the first meaning, extending back to the fifteenth century.



b)      “showing or feeling curiosity about something” –  the more modern meaning and the more commonly used meaning in our time.


So, if “disinterested” is in some way the opposite in meaning to “interested”, which should it mean?


a)      “impartial, not having any personal involvement”



b)      “bored, feeling little or no interest or curiosity”


Which is the “correct” meaning? Consider the evidence:


  1. the former is more learned, from a more formal style of English
  2. there are many more alternatives for the former use of the word, such as “not involved”, “unbiased”, “not neutral”
  3. “uninterested” also exists, and is universally said to mean the latter – “bored, feeling little or no interest or curiosity”
  4. the prefix “dis-” is frequently used to form negative adjectives out of positive ones – such as “disagreeable”, “disarmed”, “dishonest”


It would seem that two words now exist to communicate the same meaning “bored, feeling little or no interest or curiosity”, whereas before there was only one “uninterested”. Is this an inefficiency in language?


…“disinterested” used to refer to a positive lack of interest, as opposed to mere indifference which is indicated by “uninterested” – does an argument from precedence win the day?


Isn’t confusion a distinct threat?


The two meanings of “interested”, which coexisted for centuries never caused confusion, so why should two meanings for “disinterested”?


Considering that the original meaning has all but dropped out of use, isn’t there an argument for forgetting it altogether?


Isn’t the English Language a better place for having two ways of expressing how “bored and lacking in interest” one is? Isn’t there shades of meaning here which can be used to communicate subtle differences, with “disinterest” being a stronger form of “uninterest”


5. “billion”


How can the term “billion” mean both “a million million” and “a thousand million”?


6. “chauvinist”


Who is “Nicholas Chauvin”? He was a mythical French soldier reputed to be a fanatical and mindless nationalist who became a byword for fanatical and mindless nationalism.


As things stand the dictionary definition for chauvinism is


a) zealous and aggressive patriotism or blind enthusiasm for military glory



b) biased devotion to any group, attitude, or cause


When the feminist movement kicked off in the sixties and seventies the term “male chauvinist” was launched on the world – meaning “any man who held an irrational belief in male superiority”. However, it has since become shortened to simply “chauvinist”. Is this a problem?




7. “between you and I”


Between you and me is acceptable in standard English; between you and I isn’t.


This is because between is a preposition, and pronouns that come after prepositions are in the accusative case (here, me), not the nominative case (not I).


The same applies to a pair of pronouns that is the object of a verb: They’ve invited you and me to dinner is acceptable, They’ve invited you and I to dinner isn’t.

The reason why expressions like between you and I have become so common is that people are aware that the accustive case is not correct for the subject of a verb ( You and I have been invited is acceptable; You and me have been invited is not), so they make the mistake of thinking it is not correct anywhere, and always use the nominative case.

If you are in any doubt, try leaving out the first pronoun of the pair. That will show you what case the second one should be: between I and they’ve invited I are clearly ungrammatical.


…our language is now safe from withering away in the very asct of it being used / misused.




8. Awful


…now it means little more than “very bad” – as in… “That film was truly awful”


Hasn’t our language been robbed of something here?


What are we to say when we truly are in awe of something? Can we still say that this thing which inspires fear, dread, terror or awe is truly “awful”?


This is a clear example of weakening or semantic bleaching, where the meaning in our language is being sucked out of it, and we are left with a whole number of words that mean more or less the same thing.


What is the difference between an awful


What do the following words all have in common – “fantastic”, “fabulous”, “incredible”, “brilliant” and “amazing”?


Answer: they all have come to mean “very good”


But… but…


fantastic” – conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque


fabulous” – known about only through myths or legends; almost impossible to believe; incredible


incredible” – so extraordinary as to seem impossible; not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable


brilliant” – shining brightly; sparkling; glittering; lustrous; strong and clear in tone; vivid; bright


amazing” – causing great surprise or sudden wonder


Their previous denotations as well as any strong and dramatic connotations have since been lost – bleached out of our language. Surely this is an instance of language degenerating?



9. “I could of murdered him.”


10. “He doesn’t mean nothing to me.”


11. “He was the man who I was afraid of.”


12. “…to boldly go where no man has gone before”

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