Sunday, November 20, 2011

"unique" and meaning change

In order of increasing rarity: Usual, unusual, very unusual and unique  
A tie can be unique but ugly.  A very beautiful tie will often be unusual or we wouldn't notice it.  However, just because it is the only tie just like that and no other tie is like that, doesn't mean it is any good to look at or wear.

A man told me recently that he never texts and he won't respond to text messages.  He was indignant about the loss of discipline and correctness to our language and more generally to our society that text messages and young foolish people demonstrate in general.

Personally, I try to remain aware that language, like EVERYTHING else, changes, drifts.  "Nice" comes from Anglo-French from Latin meaning silly or ignorant.  "Cute" is a shortened from of "acute" meaning mentally sharp.  Both have changed their meanings over time.

I can understand being uncomfortable with word change.  For many people, being uncomfortable implies someone (ELSE!) is at fault.  The way to restore comfort is to find that someone and make them stop their faulty behavior.  I have feelings like that with the word "unique", which I want to mean "single", "unduplicated", "the only one in the world" but which speakers, thinkers, writers insist on using to mean "interestingly, provocatively, memorably unusual".  

Meaning change (click for link to web page)

"Silly are the goddy tawdry maudlin for they shall christgeewhiz bow down before him: bedead old men, priest and prester, babeling a pitterpatternoster: no word is still the word, but, a loafward has become lord."

Ronald Suffield, "The Tenth Beatitude"

"This subtle poem by the English philologist Ronald Suffield is actually written at two levels. For Suffield intends that the reader hold in mind not just the current meanings of these words but the original meanings as well. For the meaning of a word changes over time. The example everyone knows is gay, which originally meant "merry", but because some people are a little too merry came to mean "wanton", and because some people are a little too wanton came to mean "homosexual", which is the sense almost exclusively used now.

"Pejoration is the process by which a word's meaning worsens or degenerates, coming to represent something less favorable than it originally did. Most of the words in Suffield's poem have undergone pejoration.

"For instance, the word silly begins Suffield's poem and meant in Old English times "blessed", which is why Suffield calls his poem a beatitude (Christ's beatitudes begin with "blessed are the..."). How did a word meaning "blessed" come to mean "silly"? Well, since people who are blessed are often innocent and guileless, the word gradually came to mean "innocent". And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they haven't the brains to be anything else. And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they knowingly reject opportunities for temptation. In either case, since the more worldly-wise would take advantage of their opportunities, the innocents must therefore be foolish, which of course is the current primary meaning of the word silly."

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