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Wednesday, April 7th, 2021 technology  research  practice

A Research Tip

  • Research & Writing

The meanings of words change over time.

A nice example is condescending, which not so long ago meant something along the lines of ‘being gracious to the underlings’ (the King James Bible, Dr Johnson and Lord Byron use it in this sense). Since the later nineteenth century, it has meant ‘patronising’ (in a bad way; that also once had a neutral or even positive connotation).

Another is meticulous, a quality we now seek in new legal hires, but a word which used to mean ‘timid’ or ‘fearful’ rather than ‘detail-oriented’.

Only a pedant would cling to the old meanings; and we must recognise that language is not of marmoreal permanence.

What is different is a misuse or error that sticks, as opposed to a gradual shift in meaning or tone. I could care less is an example. It’s just a lazy shortening of I couldn’t care less, and the difference in meaning is worth preserving.

When usage is changing, it is still worth fighting to retain an older meaning where the new one lacks precision, logic or truth.

As events in recent years have repeatedly shown, words and truth matter; they should not be distorted to mean their Orwellian opposite.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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