Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain

There is a pinprick of irritation on reading "the kitchen was pristine" when they mean "clean".
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The Independent Online

The other day, I noticed that the word "coruscating" has changed its meaning. Changes in the meanings of words are always interesting, and one such as this, which has only just started, deserves close attention before the process is complete. At first, I thought the new meaning was a mistake, but by now it seems so well established that something more significant may be happening to quite an innocent word.

The other day, I noticed that the word "coruscating" has changed its meaning. Changes in the meanings of words are always interesting, and one such as this, which has only just started, deserves close attention before the process is complete. At first, I thought the new meaning was a mistake, but by now it seems so well established that something more significant may be happening to quite an innocent word.

When I first read - I quote from memory, but it was something like this - "Philip Kaufman's new film is alive with coruscating anger", I puzzled for a moment, wondering how anger could sparkle with light, before seeing the slip: the writer had confused two words and written "coruscating" when he meant "excoriating". Fair enough; journalists are busy people, and those are two fairly rare words. But now it seems to have taken hold, and although the word is occasionally used in its former sense, it is quite as common to read it in what I still think of as the "wrong" sense.

How do these things come about? Kingsley Amis had a good analysis of the processes of change, which is certainly correct. A writer uses an unusual word correctly; a second writer reads it and, not knowing the exact meaning of the word, conflates it with a similar word that means something quite different, and uses the word in the incorrect sense. A third writer reads that, and has no basis to think that the usage is anything but correct; and soon it will be.

The classic example of this change in meaning is what was once the very rare word "jejune". It means merely "thin and unsatisfying", but if applied metaphorically to an argument, it can easily look as if it has some connection with the French word for young, jeune. Pretty soon, it is being used everywhere to mean "immature", and - a further spectacular change - the spelling of the word is often amended to "jejeune", and it is even, in extreme cases, pronounced in a mock-French manner, not, as originally, "djidjoon" but, hilariously, "zherzhern". At this point, dictionaries give up the fight, and now, this is pretty well what "jejune" means.

It always happens to posh rare words whose meaning is not absolutely clear to all native speakers. Last year, the nation was asked what its favourite word was, and the winner by a mile was "serendipity". Enough to make you puke, but an interesting insight into the English parlour-best mentality, since by their favourite word, they clearly didn't mean one they used regularly, but one they could dust down and show to visitors. And when such words are brought out, no one seems quite to remember how they ought to be used.

In one sense, this is of no interest or concern. Certainly, the meanings of words are not defined by their etymologies, and the fact that "jejune" derives from the French word for fast, as in déjeuner, doesn't itself stop it from meaning anything under the sun. If one thinks about the different things "silly" or "gay" have meant since the Middle Ages, it is clear that these things are fairly random, and at some point in the process, proponents of the new meaning will have been regarded by old sticklers as ignorant.

All the same, it is probably right to deplore these changes. In many cases, the change results not in an enrichment of the possibilities of meaning, but an impoverishment, as a useful, precise word turns into an exact synonym of another word already in existence. Oblivious, now, means not much more than "unaware", but in the hands of a careful writer, it means something difficult to convey by other means, the sense of "becoming unaware". Irritating to have that neat meaning taken away and have to use an awkward phrase rather than a single word.

Pristine, too, has a very precise and useful meaning, and there is a minor pinprick of irritation on reading someone saying "the kitchen was absolutely pristine" when they might as well say "clean"; not just the irritation at someone wanting to use vocabulary like their Sunday best and sound generally posh, but an irritation that the next time you want to say what you used to mean by the word, you are going to have to find some other way if you want to be understood.

On the whole, I don't like lining up with the supercilious denigrators of linguistic change; language and meaning change all the time, after all, and we can hardly ever say that the change has been for the better or worse. But sometimes change does come from ignorance, and sometimes it does result in a thinning of possibilities.

Sometimes, it would really be nice to ask if we can have our word back, while accepting that there is nothing much to be done, since, as Schiller said, against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain. Perhaps the word "excoriating" will start to disappear, but I hope not; and in the meantime, I am going to carry on rolling my eyes every time I read a football commentator complaining that "the behaviour of the England fans can only be regarded as jejune."

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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