Thursday, July 13, 2017

The destruction of language

C.S. Lewis
Languages change continually. Over time, some words disappear, others are created to be applied to new concepts that did not exist before, and others change slightly in meaning. The process can continue until a word comes to mean something totally different from its original sense, or even opposed. Sometimes, various meanings of the same word coexist simultaneously.
In a book entitled Studies in Words, published in 1960, C.S. Lewis coined the word verbicide to refer to the murder of a word, making it lose its meaning with a use different than its previous one, which is subsequently lost. An equivalent symmetrical case is coining new words that are in fact totally unnecessary, since there were already other words perfectly applicable for that meaning.
The media have a great responsibility in these processes, since they frequently adopt, launch or indiscriminately copy vogue words, without regard to the consequences. Most of them are unnecessary or lead to the verbicide of some useful word. Let’s look at some of the ways this process can take place, as C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his book:
  • Inflation: use a word to exaggerate the intended meaning. For example, saying tremendous when you want to say great; sadism for cruelty. Unthinkable for undesirable.
  • Verbiage: use a word as a promise which is never going to be kept. For example, saying that something is significant without clarifying what it signifies. Or use the word diametrically to put opposite into the superlative.
  • Expression of approval or disapproval: the process by which a perfectly useful word ends up becoming an unnecessary synonym of good or bad. In this way, a word that used to be descriptive ends up becoming evaluative. This process is one of the most frequent forms of verbicide. Historically this happened, for instance, with the word courteous, that from court-related was transformed into polite; villain, which applied to peasants who lived in a village and ended up as an insult; or rotten, which originally meant corrupt and has become a synonym for bad, to the point that now, when one wants to say that something is rotten, one must use the word bad. A curious case is bourgeois, which went from one pejorative meaning to another: from not aristocratic, therefore vulgar, to not proletarian, therefore reactionary.
Verbicide entails a loss of richness in a language and can lead to its destruction. As these practices prevail, useful senses of words are lost, while unnecessary synonyms increase, leading to an inflation of terms that mean simply good, bad, and great.
Here are a few recent examples of possibly unnecessary neologisms:
  • Corruption: a reductionist synonym of the phrase political corruption that encompasses various forms of political action generally considered immoral. It includes everything represented by the terms bribery (money in exchange for a favor to a person or a company), nepotism (unfairly favoring relatives or friends) and embezzlement of public money (to enrich a person, a political party or a union). Recall that the original meaning of this word is rottenness, though it has long been applied to human acts.
  • Populism: an unnecessary synonym of demagogic, which applies equally well to the extreme left and the extreme right political tendencies, and even to personalities without a clear political position, such as Donald Trump. Its objective is to increase the negative charge of a political adjective so that it becomes, without the audience noticing it, a synonym for bad, usually without explaining the reasons why it is bad.
  • Post-truth: an unnecessary synonym of lie or falsehood, invented in the year 2010, apparently in an Internet blog, but which has spread like foam. Its purpose is to reduce the negative charge associated with the word lie to make it more acceptable. Those who use it, therefore, are usually trying to trick us.
  • Ultra-catholic: it means the same as practicing Catholic, a person who accepts and practices the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in matters related to abortion and sexuality. Its aim is to give the impression that these teachings are bad and unacceptable, that all practicing Catholics are extremists, and that the only good Catholics are those who do not accept or practice the teachings of the Church.
The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Linguistics and Medicine: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca
Happy summer holidays. I hope we'll meet again by mid-August

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