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Hoi polloi rules, semantic anarchists be damned

June 2011

Presently. This might seem like a non-contentious word, but Senior Times editor Barbara Moser related to me that her friend became apoplectic (and shunned her for months) because Barbara had the effrontery to use presently to mean “shortly” (first used in this manner in 1443) rather than its original sense of “immediately,” (first used in 1385).

Lest you have the impression that Ms. Moser represents some type of semantic anarchist, she told me that she instructs her students not to use “presently” to mean “currently,” but truth be known this is the way the word is most often used. In fact, if you do a Google search on the use of the word “presently,” you will find that the word is used to mean “currently” more than 90 per cent of the time.

This raises the question (I can’t bring myself to say “begs the question”) whether the use of “presently” to mean “currently” is wrong?

The OED allows the secondary meaning of presently to mean “at the present time,” but adds this caveat: “Apparently avoided in literary use between the 17th and 20th centuries, but in regular use in most English dialects; revived in the 20th cent. In the U.S., subsequently in Britain and elsewhere. Regarded by some usage writers, esp. after the mid-20th cent., as erroneous or ambiguous.”

If you believe that Barbara’s usage brouhaha represents an isolated incident, you’d be wrong. Many people become rather exercised over what they consider to be the misuse of a word. Exhibit 2. When Simon Winchester wrote The Professor and the Madman in 1999 describing how “madman” Dr. William Chester Minor contributed to the making of the OED under the auspices of “Professor” James Augustus Henry Murray, he received fulsome praise from all for his splendid book.

Well, not quite. Winchester was deluged by angry letters from readers of the book because in Chapter 9, he used “fulsom” as a synonym for “extravagant” or “over the top,” upsetting a certain segment of his audience.

Many readers felt that this usage was erroneous because the original meaning of the word was “offensively excessive” and Winchester says that detractors expressed alarm “that an authority on the language would make that mistake and that my use of fulsome eroded the credibility of the book as a whole.” Winchester told me that when he wrote his subsequent book, The Meaning of Everything, which accounts in greater detail how the OED was compiled, he used “fulsome” in a similar fashion “to annoy the pedants who excoriated me for using it in the first.” This also asks the question, How long do we insist that older meanings should prevail?

Truth be told, there is no simple answer, because there is no definitive arbiter on what qualifies as proper English. According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries, many new meanings are acceptable. For example, “peruse” can mean not only to “examine carefully” but to “read over in a casual manner”; “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as “impartial”; and “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” On the other hand, some dictionaries and many learned usage commentators regard these positions as linguistic heresy.

I don’t mean to imply (infer?) that I am a totally laissez-faire language libertarian. My bête noire is the misuse of “beg the question” to mean “ask the question, instead of using the term to refer to the point at issue, the thing that one is trying to prove. An argument that “begs the question” is circular, as it is based on its own conclusion.

I fear that an important linguistic concept is being lost when people use “beg the question” to mean “ask the question.” But when I hear the vast majority of journalists, even those of the BBC, regularly use it in this manner, I fear that the battle may have been lost.

Language commentator William Safire started out as a rigid prescriptivist, but even he acknowledged in his book In Love With Norma Loquendi that the masses represent the final arbiter of language: “The rules laid down by elites are to be respected … but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will work its will … When the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma Loquendi – the everyday voice of the native speaker – is the heroine who changes the order and raises a new standard.”

Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows : The Private Lives of Words (Ronsdale Press).



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