Tuesday April 24, 2012
Words and phrases subject to fashionable change
By FADZILAH AMIN
WHATEVER happened to the good old-fashioned phrase “ulterior motive”? It is still around, but has been overshadowed by “hidden agenda”, which a lot of people prefer to use nowadays.
Likewise, the older meanings of “gay” have not been much used since its newest meaning, “homosexual”, gained currency.
Indeed, language has a way of changing in the most unpredictable ways, because it is a creation of its speakers. Fashions in words and phrases change like fashions in clothes, only more slowly. Words acquire new meanings which sometimes co-exist with their old ones, but sometimes even render the old ones archaic or obsolete. And sometimes old words that have lain dormant for a long time wake up again.
As T.S. Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, /Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.”
Phrases like “hidden agenda” (first known use 1971) and “paradigm shift”, as well as words such as “synergy” and “oligarch” are called buzzwords, which are words or phrases that are currently fashionable and much used in the mass media and public discussion.
“Synergy” is not a new word in the English language. It was used in the 17th century to mean “joint working, co-operation” (Oxford English Dictionary), but that sense is now obsolete and has been replaced by the more dynamic sense of “the extra energy, power, success, etc. that is achieved by two or more people or companies working together, instead of on their own” (online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). This is the sense in which it is often used in motivational seminars, and is sometimes described as the “2 + 2 = 5” effect. The word also has a meaning in medical science, but I won’t go into that.
“Oligarch”, too, is not a new word in English. It is of Greek origin, and since 1610 has been used to mean “a member of an oligarchy; one of a few holding power in a state” (OED). “Oligarchy” has been used since 1577 to mean “government by the few”.
However, some time after 1990, the word gained a more specific meaning, which is “an extremely rich and powerful person, especially a Russian who became rich in business after the end of the former Soviet Union” (OALD). One such person is Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea Football Club in London.
In fact, Russian oligarchs are very much in the news now, so that if we mention the word “oligarch”, the word “Russian” will spring to mind.
The word “gay” used to mean joyous, light-hearted, cheerful and merry. But so widespread and overwhelming is its latest meaning, that people would think twice before using the word to mean anything but “homosexual”. If you say “The party I went to was so gay!” you are likely to be misunderstood. I feel that this word is in danger of losing its earlier meanings, or having those meanings classified as “archaic” (old-fashioned).
Some words in the lines I quoted in my article last Tuesday have indeed suffered that fate. In the 16th century poem beginning “Come live with me and be my love, /And we will all the pleasures prove”, the word “prove” meant “experience”. However, that meaning is now obsolete. The most common meaning of “prove” now is “to establish (a thing) as true” (OED).
In the 17th century poem Go lovely rose, the word “resemble” in “When I resemble her to thee” meant “compare”. That meaning is now considered archaic. The word as we use it today means “to be like, to have likeness or similarity to, to have some feature or property in common with (another person or thing)” (OED).
An instance of a word that has “decay[ed] with imprecision” is that blanket term “nice” that we use, to show approval for anything or anybody that pleases us or that we find attractive. But in becoming imprecise, the word has also become “nicer” in meaning.
The word “nice” began life very unpleasantly indeed in the 13th century as “foolish, stupid, senseless”, and went on to mean “wanton, loose-mannered; lascivious”. Thank goodness both those senses are now obsolete!
However, there is another surviving meaning of “nice” that is more precise. This is “fine or subtle” as in “a nice distinction”. Here is an excerpt from the British newspaper The Independent to illustrate its meaning: “Today, they [ministers] try to draw a distinction between what they personally sign for and what their civil servants do. It’s a nice distinction, but a misleading one.” (Leading article 8 Nov 2011)
In contrast to “nice”, there are words whose meanings have grown more pejorative (disapproving) over the centuries. One such word is “gaudy”. In Shakespeare’s time, it can mean “brilliantly fine” as in his description of the young man in Sonnet 1: “Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament, /And only herald to the gaudy spring”. But now it is mainly used in the pejorative sense of being “excessively or glaringly showy” as can be found in this description of punks in 1986: “The punks wear gaudy clothes and often spike and dye their hair, purple, pink or even blue.”
Finally, let me acknowledge my indebtedness to Paul Simon for using the title of one of his songs (which can be heard at youtube.com/watch?v=5_H-LY4Jb2M ) as the title of this article on the slippery nature of language.
For comments or inquiries, the writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.