Yagoda on semantic change

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Ben Yagoda shows in this article in Slate (not for the first time) that he is one English professor cum journalistic writer who really is smart as well as witty when writing about language. In this article he actually does some empirical research on the extent to which the prescriptivist conservatives are holding their ground — he makes an attempt at quantitative assessment of the extent to which recently shifting word meanings have caught on (the words whose meanings he studies include decimate, disinterested, eke, fortuitous, fulsome, momentarily, nonplussed, presently, toothsome, and verbal).

And while I'm in this unaccustomed state of being in a good mood from reading good work in newspaper and magazine sources, I'll tell you something else. I love the way Geoffrey Nunberg can put a thought I had been vaguely been trying to have into a perfect phrase that reveals he really deserves credit for it. At the end of his review of Robert Lane Greene in the New York Times Book Review last week, Geoff remarks that "the problem isn’t that we persist in making judgments about language. It’s that we’ve gotten so bad at it." That absolutely hits it. What has bugged me about the passive lo these past few years, for example, or about drivel like Simon Heffer's dreadful book on how to write, is not that people persist in trying to make judgments about what's weak, dull, evasive, clunky writing — of course we should try to discern what makes bad writing bad and good writing good. The problem is that morons who can't tell a passive from an active clause to save their sorry lives imagine that they are issuing deep wisdom about writerliness if they just say "Don't use the passive!". Educated people in the English-speaking world are now typically too ignorant to be other than inept at criticism of the technical points of writing.

Yagoda reflects on what should be the response to the evolution of a new meaning that contradicts the former meaning of a word, and he tries to find a few things out; he doesn't just lapse into word rage. Such reflectiveness is rare now. People just fly into their rants. And on average they know so little about language that they can't even formulate criticisms that make sense, even in a context where much negative criticism is undoubtedly due. Nunberg gets that exactly right, in twenty. Nice work, Ben; well put, Geoff.

Verbal comments are closed, either fortuitously or because I am disinterested.

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