|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?
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?
We should start programming spell-checkers to look for common phrases and catch wrong-homophone errors in addition to normal typos...