or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Change or Die

I suppose you've already read this piece that was published last week in Slate about changes in word usages over time and when we ought to throw in the towel?

Some of the words and phrases are already lost causes, of course. "Decimate", despite an etymology which points to its original sense of "to kill one in ten", now means "to destroy the larger part of". "The lion's share", from one of Aesop's fables, once meant "the entirety [of]", but now means "most [of]". (I would perversely argue that it always meant "most", because, wild animals being what they are, sneaky carnivores such as the jackal are going to skitter in and grab what they can get while the lion isn't looking.)

Some of the words it will be a real shame to lose. I think many people wouldn't know the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested", but the former has a specific meaning--"partial in judging to neither side, and therefore presumed to be fair"--which is useful, and in no way connected to the meaning of the latter. (Another similar pair of words is "unused" and "disused", the latter of which is generally disused these days.)


It's always hilarious to hear people talk about the purity of English, as if the language was now or ever had been at any point some sort of beacon of polish and refinement instead of the linguistic version of the North Pacific Gyre, sucking in flotsam from every part of the globe where it may commingle, most of it sinking from sight and the remainder forever being circulated and altered and recombined.

I am not opposed to change in language, of course, but I like the idea that words mean something, that they're not just interchangeable parts: I am opposed to the descriptivist notion that near enough is good enough. I don't expect English to remain unchanged, but there are changes and then there are changes.

Here is a sentence from a movie review on Something Awful:

It's used to illicit emotional responses from audiences when you can't do it with story or characters or acting

and here is another

At this point, the very words "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" illicit groans and cries of "Oh, fuck that!" in cinemas everywhere.

Two different authors, the very same mistake. Three possibilities:

1) They're the same person writing under different aliases.
2) An editor who doesn't know better got his hands on both pieces.
3) Mistaking "illicit" for "elicit" is a very common error.

The words aren't even related, for god's sake. "Elicit" is the the fusion of "ex-", "out of", and "lacere", "to draw out, to lure" (the "-lace" of "shoelace", in the sense of "a cord for tying", is kin). "Illicit" is formed of "in-", "not", plus "licitus", "lawful", from "licere", "to be allowed" (seen in "license" and "licentious"). They sound the same, but they are not the same.

Mistaking "illicit" for "elicit" is exactly the same as mistaking "they're" for "their" or "there". Such errors mark you as undereducated, sub-literate. They're a badge of shame.


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