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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?

[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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