The evolution of language and the catching of drifts

I am glad to welcome back to this space our roving language expert Dr Wordsmith, who has just come back from serving on the panel of judges for the Slow English Awards, and is now ready to answer more of your queries about modern English. Take it away, doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, What are these Slow English Awards? I have never heard of them. Are they anything like the Plain English Awards?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Well, they have the same sort of aim. Plain English is all very well, but if people speak it too fast, you still can't understand them, so these awards are given to public figures who speak as slowly as possible and thus give us more chance to catch their drift.

Dear Wordsmith, Presumably Clement Freud wins every time?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No, he usually comes in a bit behind Alistair Cooke.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I would like to draw to your attention a change in meaning that is taking place at this very moment, a change in the meaning of the word "confirm". In the old days, when you confirmed something, it meant that you were approving of something already existing. You confirmed an arrangement or the time of a train, something like that. But now it just means to pass on some information. A girl rang me yesterday from some office with which I was dealing, and asked me to confirm my address. I said I would be happy to confirm my address. I waited to hear what she thought it was. She said nothing. I suddenly realised that when she said, "Can you confirm your address?", she meant, "Can you tell me your address?".

Dr Wordsmith writes: Did you tell her that she was using the wrong word?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I did.

Dr Wordsmith writes, A great error. Never tell people that they are using words wrongly. They always get upset and they never change their ways. Relativism is everywhere these days.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I hate to cross swords with you, but I think there are too many words ending in -ism these days. Relativism. Scientism. Militarism. Nationalism. Ageism. Triumphalism, even! And what is wrong with telling people that they are using words wrongly? I thought that was your job!

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not at all. I am merely here to observe the way language is evolving. For instance, it is interesting to note that -ism now confers a note of disapproval. "Judaism" and "feminism" merely describe something. New words such as "sexism" and "racism" go beyond description to active disapproval. I do not say this is good or bad. When I hear someone speaking, I don't judge them; I merely note what he or she is doing to the language.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, As a feminist, I object strongly to your correspondent who used the word "girl" when he should have said "woman". I'm glad that you yourself, just now, said that a person was "he or she", but I object to the way "he" always precedes "she" in this expression. If it's equality you're after, why not say "she or he"? But nobody ever does.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Good point. But why did you assume that the person who used the word "girl" just now was a man? Was that not rather sexist of you? Might it not have been a woman?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, but...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Got you there, I think! Next, please.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Recently you commented on the appearance of a new occupation called "caring". You said that there hadn't been any carers when you were a lad, and wondered whether there were any other new professions like that. Well, yes, there are. I visited Wells Cathedral for the first time the other day, and just inside the door there was a man standing looking rather officious. He had a badge on his lapel. On it there was one word. It was "Welcomer".

Dr Wordsmith writes: Excellent! I must say, I would have been tempted to say to him, "Welcomer than what?".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I'm afraid that is exactly what I did say. And he said: "Ha, ha, bloody ha. If I had a quid for every time someone has said that to me..."

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

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