Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Literally ironic, uniquely iconic

So, language changes. I get that. I use words differently from the way my parents did and they use them differently from their parents before them. They probably wouldn’t have begun a blog post with “so” for a start. And once upon a time “awful” meant inspiring reverential fear (so it’s weaker now, as well as more derogatory) and “decimated” meant losing a tenth of your forces (so it’s stronger now, if less precise) and if you used them like that today (which used to be hypenated – to-day) it wouldn’t simply be archaic, it would be downright wrong.

But – and I suspect that my grandparents, if not my parents, were taught never to begin a sentence with “but” – some changes grate. Loud and mighty was the outrage when dictionaries began to acknowledge that “literally” was frequently used to mean, well, “not literally”. It was unfair that the opprobrium was directed against the dictionaries, which rightly describe the way of the word rather than prescribe or proscribe but I did and do share the annoyance. For a start, there’s already a word meaning “not literally” and that’s “figuratively”. It’s different from “literally” because they mean different, opposite things. When I use a phrase and want to clarify that I don’t mean it to be taken literally, I’ll say “figuratively” and people will understand. But what if I want to ensure that what I say is to be taken at face value? If I say “literally” how many of the people will think I’m using the newer meaning and understand the precise opposite of what I intended? The shift has effectively made “literally” useless as a word because it ceases to have anything like a fixed meaning. Until things have settled down (probably at a point when the original meaning is relegated by the dictionaries to being a quaint archaism) it’s pretty much unusable. And if and when that does happen, we still don’t have a good word to mean that someone didn’t just make a social gaffe, he really did physically insert his foot into his mouth.

The change affecting “unique” is less of a problem as it’s more of a weakening than a complete reversal of meaning. I regularly see it being used to suggest “unusual” or “different” or “special” or “rare” and if this happens often enough, that’s what it will come to mean. But “unique” means something specific: there is only one of these things in existence. And again, if it’s diluted to mean that there aren’t very many of these things in existence, but maybe a bit more than one, what word do we use when we want to indicate that, no, there’s only one, and that’s your lot? The same goes for “ironic”, which now apparently means anything from “coincidental” to “a bit unusual”; and “iconic”, which means “something from a few years back that with the aid of a massive marketing budget and a bit of false consciousness we hope will acquire a historic resonance that it really doesn’t deserve”.

Change in language is good. It can expand our vocabularies, offering us ways to discuss concepts and things that we would previously have had difficulty addressing. But these particular changes, where a word’s meaning becomes blurred from something to pretty much anything, actually constrict language because when a word means anything, it means nothing. And for the time being, while we’re in this state of flux, I’ll refrain from using these four words. They’ve become meaningless.


Ms Scarlet said...

I don't like the word unique.... it brings to mind dodgy typography and unpleasant jewellery.
I am upset about the other words though.

Dave said...

I wish there were an alternative spelling, 'aweful' which retained the original meaning; in the meantime I have to use awe-inspiring.

I still use decimate in the original form and accept I will be misunderstood. How ironic that those who chose to use a precise word, precisely because of its precision, now do so accepting that it will be interpreted falsely.

Valerie Polichar said...

I find it very frustrating. Our options for creativity and clarity narrow when every word means the same as every other word. Might as well just say "oh hey, I thing'd the whatsit thingie" (as, in fact, I am often heard to say to my husband).

One can say 'singular' in place of 'unique', taking advantage of one of the lower-down definitions of the word, because people have forgotten that it means "exceptional" or "individual" anyway. And that's a bit sad too.

expat@large said...

Mild to moderately ironic that misuse of literally. Ironic because the people who use in it the wrong sense are unaware that they are idiots. Literally.

Tim F said...

You mean something like Diamunique, Scarlet? A fake diamond like no other?

That's a paradox, isn't it, Dave? People who actually know what words mean are the ones who have to restrict their vocabularies, to avoid being misunderstood.

Singular's good, Valerie. Although I always think that a singular person is going to be weird, and not just in the sense of being unusual.

Just tell them they're being idiomatic, e@l. They'll probably get offended.