When meaning takes a leap

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The other day I mentioned a letter from Norman Shepherd in which he had said how curious it was that journalists and other people often use words in exactly the opposite sense from the original meaning. ("Quantum leap" was the expression that most offended him, on the grounds that "quantum" means a minimal amount and not the giant leap forward that is often meant.) I asked if other readers had further examples of words drifting into meaning the opposite. You did not let me down.

John Coe of Westcliff on Sea, for instance, points out that prepositions can undergo this change. "I used to `fill in' a form, but now we `fill out' a form. I used to say `it's up to you', but now people say `it's down to you'."

He's absolutely right, once you think about it. It is silly to say "it's down to you". The only thing I would add is that it was also silly in the first place to say "it's up to you".

Mr Coe adds: "As to `quantum leap', Norman Shepherd is correct. If a quantum is a small quantity, then a quantum leap must involve a small change. Your dictionary has merely quoted the commonly adopted misuse of the term. Another example from physics is the use of `light years' to refer to a period of time when it should refer to a distance."

Many readers seem to be driven mad by one particular misuse or even over- use.

Mrs Briggs is driven wild by the expression "go missing" - it is plain wrong to say that something has gone missing when it has just been lost - and Roy Evans is equally frantic over things being "up for grabs", while Brian Eames hates people who interchange "stress" and "emphasise".

But I think Doreen Horlock of Worthing is nearer to what Norman Shepherd was on about when she points out that "pristine" has undergone a near- 180 degree change. "Its original meaning was `former' but it has been appropriated by journalists, particularly fashion-writers, to mean `pure', `new', `sparkling white'." In other words, "pristine" used to mean old and it now means new....

Rhoda Koenig writes to say that if I care to look it up I will find that "fulsome" is now used in the opposite meaning from the original. I did care to look it up and sure enough fulsome (coming, I think, from foulsome) used to mean loathsome and nauseating.

She also challenged me to think of a word which, if you added "un" to its front, retained the same meaning. I could not think of it, though I remembered being told that "inflammable" and "flammable" both mean the same thing. Can you think of a word that remains unaltered in meaning if you put "un" at the front? You have until the end of this column ...

Richard Lyne offered an example which is perhaps the clearest of the lot: "obverse". The obverse is the front of anything. That's what it means and only that. The Queen's head is on the obverse of most coins - British ones, at least. Yet people insist on using "obverse" to mean "reverse". Why? Is it because it sounds like "reverse"?

David Seymour of south London revives the hoary old question about when interviews and concerts are "live" and when they are not, but adds a new twist: " `ITN Live'. I use this example as you may well not have noticed its untruth. As a deaf person, 888 is my lucky number, being the teletext page for subtitles. So, the ITN newsreader says, `We now go over to so- and-so live', and what follows, with the `ITN Live' logo in the corner of the screen, is to all intents and purposes a `live' interview. Often, however, it isn't, as those of us who use subtitles can tell, for the words appear on the screen well in advance of their being spoken."

John Layton of Wellingborough puts all of this in perspective by pointing to some words that have undergone violent changes of meaning in the past. "Sophisticated" used to mean "adulterated, impure, not genuine". "Awful" used to mean "wonderful, awe-inspiring". "Simple" used to mean "plain, honest", and "silly" used to mean "blessed, pure", as indeed the cognate word in German, Selig, still does. (I remember reading once that the word "cretin" is derived from the word "Christian".) And, very oddly, "presently" now means "in a while, as and when, by and by" although it used to mean "at once, straight away".

Finally, Rhoda Koenig's word, which means the same whether it has "un" in front or not, is - anyone ? That's right. "Unloosen", which means the same as "loosen". Well done, Rhoda. She wins a holiday for two in Papeete and everyone else gets Millennium mugs.