To boldly go in search of lost meaning

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The Independent Online
I have a large staff here at The Independent whose task it is to constantly monitor the English language for changes of meaning and to covertly insert split infinitives into my articles to gratuitously give offence to over-sensitive language mavens.

Incidentally, I first came across this word maven in a column in the Herald Tribune by the American writer Russell Baker, and finally discovered, after buying and selling a lot of dictionaries, that it was a Yiddish word meaning expert or connoisseur. I have since then seen it quite often in columns by Russell Baker, but have never heard the word used in my life. Whenever I have tried to use it, people either ignore me or say, "Mabel? What Mabel? I don't know anyone called Mabel!" So much for the supposed joys and advantages of a rich vocabulary. All my life I had been encouraged to believe that increased word power was a benefit. The opposite is true. All that is achieved by a rich vocabulary is to gradually isolate you from your fellow humans.

(Another split infinitive there! You're working well today, lads!)

In fact, the large and industrious staff I have here at The Independent to help monitor changes in language inform me that our vocabulary is, if anything, becoming poorer, with many words being marginalised and ghettoised, and suffering income deprivation.

They point, for instance, to the word "personality".You may find this hard to believe, but the word "personality" for a long time meant nothing more or less than "personality" - in other words, it referred to people's character, and by extension to people who had a lot of character. "He's got real personality!" we would say. Or, "He's a real personality!" meaning that he was flamboyant or magnetic or charismatic in some way. Now, however, it has been devalued by the BBC and others in their strange use of the word in their Personality of the Year competitions, notably the BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition, which is traditionally won by the sports person who has the least visible personality, and whose collected interviews would make a cure for insomnia.

Curious, I asked my large and industrious staff if they had any other examples of words being shunted down a linguistic siding like this, and after they had raised their eyebrows at my old-fashioned use of railway imagery ("Are there any sidings left in Britain? Does anything get shunted into them?" says the pencilled note from my large and industrious staff. "We strongly advice you to use car-linked imagery from now on."), after that rap on the knuckles, they gave me a short list of doubtful word usage which I found so thought-provoking that I thought I would park it on the forecourt and see if the public wanted to test-drive it. Here we go then.

Quote There was a time when "quote" was a slangy word for "quotation". The Oxford Book of Quotes, we would say. Either way it referred to a phrase or saying or line of verse that had become so well-known it had entered the language. Nowadays, "quote" simply means anything that any celebrity has said recently, interesting or not. "I have a quote from you a couple of days ago," says Ned Sherrin to a guest on Loose Ends, and it doesn't mean that he has encountered a thought-provoking phrase that has gone into the language during Friday, it simply means that Sherrin's large and industrious staff of researchers have found a line in an interview with the guest that may well bear reheating and re-serving, even though the guest invariably doesn't remember saying his or her "quote".

Period Period furniture or period houses could, formerly, come from any period as long as it was recognisably of that period. Now, the word applies only to TV drama and always refers to Georgian times. The word "costume" is going the same way.

Lottery Used to mean a risky gamble in a bad sense, like driving on black ice. Now it means a national entertainment that gives the Government an excuse for not supporting the arts.

Guru Used to mean an Eastern wise man. Now it refers to someone who goes on TV and talks about modern fashions, usually with the addition of "Style".

Celebrity Used to mean someone who was very famous. Now means a) someone who used to be famous, OR b) someone who has been on Call My Bluff at lunch-time, OR c) someone who has played a part in a TV soap opera OR d) someone who doesn't actually win awards himself but gets to open the envelope containing awards for other people.

More dodgy words soon, including input, synergy, dysfunctional, lad, etc!