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Being Picky with Words [Mar. 17th, 2005|12:11 am]
I'm given to understand that English has a bigger vocabulary than most (all?) other languages. This means that English has high descriptive granularity; there are lots of words that differ in meaning by fine shades. I like that, because I like to be able to use precise terminology when it's available. (This is a general trait of geeks, according to The Jargon Files Appendix, which is scarily accurate.)

Anyway, there are a number of words that, in common usage (even in dictionaries), are starting to lose their precise meanings, which would be a shame. Here's the ones I can think of at the moment.

uninterested vs disinterested
"Uninterested" means that I don't care; "disinterested" means that I don't have any stake in the question and am a neutral party.

jealousy vs envy
"Envy" means that you have something that I wish I had; "jealousy" means that you've got something that I think rightly belongs to me, or that I'm intolerant of rivalry with regard to that thing.

nausea vs nauseous
"Nausea" (noun) is a feeling of queasiness; "nauseous" (adjective) is something nausea-inducing.

So the question is: are these important distinctions of meaning that it's valuable to preserve? Are there others we should work on maintaining?

Or is it just obnoxious hypercorrectness and linguistic snobbery?

From: hapaxeslegomena
2005-03-16 11:55 pm (UTC)
Or is it just obnoxious hypercorrectness and linguistic snobbery?

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

By all means, fight for every shade, tint, hue, and tone of meaning there is. With regard to these three pairs… I only discovered the nausea/nauseous distinction late in life, but find it to be a useful one. I only discovered the uninterested/disinterested distinction about thirty seconds ago when I read this entry, but I can see how it, too, could be useful. I fear, however, that the ship sailed long ago on jealous/envious.
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[User Picture]From: earthling177
2005-03-17 12:36 am (UTC)
Another meaning for jealousy, at least in Portuguese, is that you want control over what you are jealous of, like exerting control over your partner (most common use in Portuguese anyway).

I've also seen people misuse "noxious" in place of nausea or nauseous. Grrr. Might actually be the reason why people think something noxious make them nauseous, instead of nauseated.

My current peeve has more to do with "in a moment" vs. "momentarily". "In a moment" being very soon, and "momentarily" being "for a moment" or "for a short while". I can even see how that stupidity started -- some nurse told a patient in an ER that "the doctor will see you momentarily" and the patient thought "Oh, good, they'll be here soon" instead "oh, no! they'll only take a cursory look at me!" and it stuck. Bummer, dude!
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[User Picture]From: vyrin
2005-03-17 12:59 am (UTC)
I'd say that the difference between Envy and Jealousy is quite important, since Envy is a much more stable emotion compared with Jealousy (especially in relationships) and has very different moral and ethical connotations. In fact, if we could somehow trick our highly evolved mammalian brains into only feeling Envy and never Jealousy then I think we would be much more happy and functional, both as individuals and as a society.
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From: detailbear
2005-03-17 03:24 am (UTC)
I've actually posted in someone's journal about the difference between envy and jealousy. I don't experience jealousy. I do experience envy and occasionally possessiveness over objects.

I have also laughed when someone has described themselves as "nauseous" when they meant "nauseated". They didn't appreciate it at the time.

I find that I'm succumbing to the use of "hopefully" meaning "I hope that" rather than "I had a hopeful mood". I'm also fond of nouning verbs and verbing nouns.

I think it would be a shame to lose the distinctions and the shadings of meanings that are available to us in our language. I'm also a proponent of plain language. I don't think that the two goals are mutually incompatable.

Lastly, theatrebear has laughed at me for using words like "penchant" and "tangental" in my everyday conversation. *g*
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-03-17 06:24 am (UTC)
The "nauseated"/"nauseous"/"nausea" thing is the only one of these that I don't find myself at all caring about. I think that's because "nauseous" [adj] as you're defining it here means the same thing as "nauseating" [adjective participle of "nauseate"], which I think is unlikely to change meaning.

Forcing people to use either a noun ("I feel nausea") or an adjective past participle ("I feel nauseated") to describe how they feel runs counter to typical English practice ("I feel sad" is the common usage, not "I feel saddened" or "I feel sadness"), and has always seemed pedantic to me.
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2005-03-17 09:30 am (UTC)
Actually, the use of the past participle as an adjective has a long history in most European languages. E.G. "It is colored." and "The area was flattened." This concept has always been very hard for my English-speaking Spanish students to grasp, as we don't really learn formal grammar in schools in most Anglophonic nations.

In some cases, as you point out, either the noun or the past particle-as-adjective is correct, or at least accepted, as in the case of "nausea" and "nauseated" in your example. In other cases, meanings differ, as in "It is color." vs. "It is colored."

"I feel sad" is the common usage, not "I feel saddened" or "I feel sadness"

I would argue that 'feel' is an unusual verb choice for 'saddened', at least without a subjunctive clause following; 'am' would generally make more sense. On the other hand, none if them is strictly speaking incorrect, just some are more common and/or less awkward than others.
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2005-03-17 09:40 am (UTC)
Sure--of course, it's true that there are cases where the past participle is standard (a parallel example to the one I gave: "I feel troubled" has a different meaning from "I feel trouble."). But it's clear that the source of confusion is because the form feels somehow wrong: people expect that to feel nauseous is the correct usage, and I don't know why.

I guess that any time that such a linguistic "error" is common speech, we need to ask why it's happening, and if the "correct" meaning can be conveyed in another perfectly reasonable way. The example of "nauseous," to me, seems like one where there's not much worth worrying about, because "nauseating" is unambiguous.

[By contrast, I'll fight forever before I stop using was/were subjunctive, where the distinction does seem important to me.]
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-03-17 09:37 am (UTC)
Good point! The nauesa(ted)/nauseous one may be unsalvageable for that very reason.

There are far too many stupidities of prescriptive grammar (like "don't split infinitives", or "don't end in a preposition", both of which are perfectly fine in most cases). It's tricky to find the fine line between that nonsense and encouraging precise use of words with subtle distinctions...
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[User Picture]From: navrins
2005-03-17 10:41 am (UTC)
They are useful, but I think we create new distinctions roughly as fast as we lose old ones. Had I slept more than an hour in the past 28, I'm sure I could come up with some.

Basically, I think everyone should use words the way I learned them, which means you're correct about on the first two points and wrong on the last, "presently" means "soon," not "now," and, um, other things.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2005-03-17 11:35 am (UTC)
And "momentarily" means "for a moment," not "in a moment." But that one is dead.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2005-03-17 11:34 am (UTC)
These are mutually exclusive?
Hooray for obnoxious hypercorrectiveness of important distinctions of meaning!
Now if only I can get people to use "nauseous" and "noxious" correctly... and "comprise" and "compose"... and...
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[User Picture]From: thedragonweaver
2005-03-17 01:57 pm (UTC)
It reminds me of a quotation (ha!) from H. Beam Piper, actually. "[English is] the result of Norman men-at-arms to get dates with Saxon barmaids, and as legitimate as any of the other results."

Distinction of meaning is precisely why it is important to maintain accurate word choice. I had a teacher in high school who would insist that we look up words if we were the least bit unsure of their exact meaning. He had one student look up "red"— for which the definition was "the color of blood." I would prefer a definition that made use of nanometers, myself.

The thing that is most noticeable on the internet is not the loss of precise word meanings but precise phrase meanings. The spelling of one of the words changes, and the phrase loses its historical roots.

"To reign in" loses all meaning through the substitution; in a post-horse era, most people don't realize that pullnig back on reins (REINING in) results in the stopping of a galloping horse. "To tow the line" loses its pugilistic roots, where toeing the line meant following the rules. And there are the myriad phrases for which "loose" is substituted for "lose"; one can use a counter-argument and wonder what, exactly, happens when you LOSE the dogs of war?
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-03-17 02:10 pm (UTC)
We should start programming spell-checkers to look for common phrases and catch wrong-homophone errors in addition to normal typos...
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[User Picture]From: flwyd
2005-03-17 04:42 pm (UTC)
Descriptive granularity and vocabulary size don't have a linear relationship. What some languages lack in vocabulary size they make up in modifiers. Languages with aglomerative grammars (German, Turkish, etc.) can keep tacking on sufficies until they get what they want. "The castle on the hill surrounded by soldiers emerging from the water" is, I think, one word in Turkish. And every time you add a suffix, you may change the spelling and/or pronunciation of the previous sufficies. But it would be misleading at best to claim that Turkish had an infinite vocabulary.

This of course holds without aglomerative grammars as well, since you can always add adjectives and adverbs. Having it as a single "word" just makes it less clumsy.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-03-17 05:10 pm (UTC)
True enough, which makes it very hard to decide what a "word" is in some languages. (Heck, even in English - is "bluish-green" a single new word, a single compound word with an affix, or two separate words compounded grammatically?)

But, if we regard the long phrase and the root-word-with-fifty-affixes as being basically equivalent, I think that English still has more descriptive granularity than Turkish, because in addition to "the castle on the hill beside the swampy valley", we can also say "the fortress on the hillock beside the marshy vale", "the citadel on the knoll beside the boggy declivity", and "the palace on the bluff beside the waterlogged swale", all of which mean slightly different things even before we start adding modifiers.
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