The final chapter of C. S. Lewis's STUDIES IN WORDS shifts from the narrowly focused topics of the rest of the book (each chapter delving into the history of a particular term and its relatives) to a general overview of what he calls "verbicide," the degradation of the meanings of words. Not that he expects words to stay frozen in their original denotations. As he says somewhere else, expecting a changeless language is like asking for a motionless river. What he objects to are changes that empty words of meaning. Most words now used as insults or compliments began as descriptive, neutral terms. "Cad" is short for a reference to boys or young men, surviving in the golf term "caddie." "Villain" originally meant a peasant and eventually became derogatory when it grew to emphasize the alleged boorish, thug-like traits of the typical peasant. (That's almost certainly how Richard III uses it in Shakespeare's play; he plans to act like an uncouth brute, not a mustache-twirling incarnation of evil.) Now it just means a very bad person. "Gentleman" denoted a man of a particular social class before it gained the connotation of someone who displays the fine manners and honor expected of that class. By now it has lost all connection with class status and simply means a polite man or, even more vaguely, a man the speaker approves of. To call someone a good Christian, in Lewis's day, had come to signify a favorable opinion of the subject's behavior rather than a statement that the person belonged to a certain religion and believed, at least theoretically, in its doctrines. Lewis deplored the trend of turning previously useful words, which at least implied specific grounds for praise or condemnation, into yet more all-purpose synonyms for "good" and "bad." "Awful," which originally meant "awe-inspiring," evolved to mean "very bad." "Fantastic," which implied wildly imaginative or incredible, came to mean "very good." I shudder to think how Lewis would react if he visited our era and discovered "awesome" has morphed into a substitute for "very nice."
Speaking of "very," it has changed from meaning "truly" to a general intensifier that writers are advised to avoid. Mark Twain famously suggested that we replace every "very" with "damn." The editor would delete all the "damns," to the great improvement of our writing. (Not that this trick would work nowadays, when few editors would blink at that once-unprintable word.) As for "damn" itself, it has little more content than a snarl. To echo Lewis again, someone who trips over the furniture and exclaims, "Damn that chair!" doesn't really expect it to be endowed with a soul and condemned to eternal torment. "Literally" has become, for many casual speakers, another content-free intensifier even in statements the diametric opposite of literal.
Then there's the phenomenon of euphemism creep. Valiant attempts to replace taboo or insulting words with less offensive equivalents sooner or later result in the euphemism taking on the stigma of the word it replaces, so a new alternative has to be invented. "Retarded" originated as a euphemism implying a little slow rather than feebleminded. During my teen years, "idiot," "imbecile," and "moron" had already served as insults in popular speech for a long time, but high-school lessons on mental health taught us they still had sober scientific meanings in reference to precisely defined IQ ranges. In my youth, "colored" and "Negro" were the polite words for Black people; now they're considered at best old-fashioned, at worst offensively patronizing (except in the names of organizations such as the NAACP). Long before I was born, "toilet" shifted from a personal hygiene ritual to the room where it was often performed, then to a particular plumbing fixture in that room. As a result, in my teens I found the older use of "toilet" in Victorian novels puzzling, and at that age we were apt to snicker at the label "toilet water" for a type of perfume.
Writers can't stop language from changing, not that we'd want to. Nor can we hope to stem the flood of verbicide. What we can do is try to avoid the latter in our own prose. Aside from dialogue, where current slang such as "awesome" for "very nice" may fit the character, we can take care to use words in their proper context with precise meanings.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt
Fascinating and funny. I like Twain's suggestion for replacing "very". That would be very damn funny. : )ReplyDelete