or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 13, 2010

High Anxiety

Those of us who believe that there is a right and a wrong way to use the language still understand that words change over time. Sometimes they take on an entirely new meaning: sometimes their meaning simply shifts a little. Some people, though, just don't get this: they seem to believe that language is a form of algebra, in which each term has one and only one meaning, with no overlap and no possible confusion.

Here is the concluding paragraph from a post on Pharyngula about that hick town in Mississippi that cancelled the school prom rather than allow a young woman to attend in a tux with her girlfriend rather than in the socially approved manner:

I predict that Constance McMillen will be one of the progressive young people who will be fleeing Small Town America as fast as she can, as soon as she can. And the old geezers and flea bag preachers will sit around in their shrinking, backwards-looking community and wonder why the young people are so anxious to abandon them.

And here is what a commenter wrote:

"Anxious" and "eager" are not synonyms. Not at all. "Anxious" means having apprehension, worry, even painful uncertainty. Anxiety can even be a psychological disorder. You meant "eager".

And this is absolutely, entirely, unequivocally wrong.

"Anxious" has been a more or less precise synonym for "eager" since the middle of the eighteenth century; the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation to this effect just 120 years after the word "anxious" first appeared in print in 1623. "Anxious" in this form usually takes the preposition "to": "I am anxious for their safety" means I'm distressed or fretful, but "I am anxious to see him again" means I'm eager or anticipatory. (It can also take "that": "I am anxious that they have a good time.")

When I get an idea in my head about whether something is right or wrong, I do a little research first. I guess not everyone could be bothered, and this is what gives prescriptive grammarians a bad name.

"Anxious", by the by, is clearly from Latin, and is related to such English words as "anger", "anguish", and even "angst", all words for big, painful emotions, which is only right, as the Latin root, "angere", means "to cause pain". The "hang-" in "hangnail" is from this source, too: the nail isn't hanging, it's painful.


Blogger Spur_des_Tensors said...

This seems to be quite an interesting issue.I agree with the first statement that language changes over time and so do word-meanings; however, it would be linguistically right to say which kind of synonyms they are cause there're no 'pure' synonyms. The historic point isn't either effective (at least when we go back a century ago or so) cause the meaning could be changed much more quickly.
However, I do rely on a language sense when it comes to the neutral lexis layer (to which belong the two words you mentioned), so that a commenter was not actually right and it seems that he just tried to import his own associations.
To be fair here, I shall also mention English is not my native language, but I'm a linguist and I do Germanic languages, esp. Old English.
Just couldn't pass by ;)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 3:49:00 AM  
Blogger Spur_des_Tensors said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 3:49:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

You are right that there are not many "pure" synonyms, certainly not in English: even words that are extremely close in their senses have little variations, little shades of meaning, and why not? Why would we need two words that mean precisely the same thing? We have, to use my favourite example, dozens of words that mean "thin", and no two of them are exactly alike--slim, slender, skinny, bony, willowy, reedy....

Nevertheless, you can often replace one word with another and get the same basic sense, and "anxious" and "eager" happen to be one of these pairs. If I say I'm anxious to leave on my trip, it certainly doesn't mean that I'm nervous or apprehensive:it means, plain and simple, that I am looking forward to going. That I'm eager. Context is everything.

People will of course attach their own associations to various words: that's inevitable. But to flat-out say that something is wrong, when it it is thoroughly established in the language by centuries of usage, is simply thoughtless, if not worse.

Friday, March 19, 2010 12:25:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home