You have been pre-warned!
Language is a living, breathing, mutating organism. Over time, its meaning and its usage are subject to modification. As a rule, this osmosis is a slow, drawn-out process. Take the word ‘quick’. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon cwic, meaning ‘alive’. The meaning has developed from ‘alive’ to anything moving fast or in a short period of time. There are echoes of its original Anglo-Saxon connotation in the phrase ‘quickening in the womb’. When the foetus starts to move, there is definite evidence that something in there is very much alive. When the Normans invaded in 1066, our Anglo-Saxon language was submitted to relentless incursion but being a very flexible language, it assimilated the French influence and became much the richer for it. Examples abound of innovation that gradually became common-place. Here is just one example. The phrase ‘to pick a quarrel’ is used in everyday speech. Quarel is an old French word, originally meaning an arrow. Thus, when the longbow or the crossbow was the rifle of mediaeval warfare, you picked your arrow with care, otherwise you were likely to be shafted.
Other words in our language, of course, have undergone a much more rapid change of meaning, some nuanced, some bewilderingly divergent, even in one’s lifetime. How many of us of a certain age have found ourselves pointing out that such and such a word or phrase didn’t “mean that when we were young”? When my mother remarked of a friend that he was “a gay sort of chap”, she was referring to his disposition, not his sexuality. Back then, even I was aware - though she was not - that when she described amother acquaintance as “a bit queer”, she did not mean he had a different sexual orientation, merely he was a bit ‘odd’. Similarly, when my father enquired how I was getting on at university, his eyes narrowed when I replied,”Groovy”. He was perfectly aware that I was reading English, not carpentry, and that I had never, from that day to this, knowingly betrayed the slightest interest in, or aptitude for, DIY. ‘Nice’ is another one. It originally meant ‘a fine distinction between one thing and another’ (‘nicely judged’); now it is a vague term of approbation. “Bad’ was, well, bad; today it can have the opposite meaning (naughty but nice). One of my sons when he was little, asked while on our way for a holiday, “Is Spain hot?” When assured that it was, he nodded appreciatively and said, “Cool!” ‘Bubble’ in recent months has taken on an added context. “Baby boomers, ‘millennials’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘helicopter parents’….. the lexicon is ever-expanding. And what about the new language of technology, most of it all Greek to me but some of it has filtered through: ‘cloud’, ‘footprint’, ‘meme’, ‘tweet’, ‘virus’ (not that one), ‘cookie’, ‘wireless’, ‘mouse’, ‘keyboard’…..
Now, the purpose of this article is not to elaborate on the fact that English is a very adaptable language and is evolving all the time – that is self-evident – but to bemoan its lazy, sloppy, inaccurate and ultimately misleading useage. At the risk of sounding off as ‘Disgruntled from Malvern’, I do wince at one or two recent absurdities. The purpose of language is communication. Vague cliche and fine-sounding claptrap debase the language and ultimately lead to empty rhetoric, the very opposite of intelligent expression. The current pandemic has provided me with ideal ammunition for my first salvo. We were told that people with pre-existing medical conditions were most at risk from the virus. How can anything exist before it exists?. ‘Pre-order’ is another one. You cannot order anything before you have ordered it. You cannot ‘pre-book’ a taxi before you have booked it. You cannot ‘pre-arrange’ anything before you have arranged it. The same with ‘pre-load’, ‘pre-heat’, ‘pre-rehearse’, ‘pre-organise’ and others of the same ilk. Logic has flown out of the window. The prefix ‘pre’, occurring in words where it means ‘before’, is reduntant in these cases. The one that makes me laugh the most – a hollow laugh, I have to admit - is ‘pre-prepared’. Two ‘pre’s’ for the price of one.
As it was the pandemic that started me off on this polemic, I take exception at being told to self-isolate. I think the instruction is pretty pointless anyway; you cannot tell the whole population to go home and never come out again. But my scepticism of government edict is not my point. The ‘self’ in ‘self-isolate’ is reduntant. Isolation is a solitary condition. You can only isolate yourself. Nobody is going to come with you, otherwise it is not true isolation. You can isolate someone else, ie, put him or her into isolation, but in that context, the self is not involved. Pedantic? Nit-picking? Splitting hairs? Quite possibly. But in the same way that we check the back door is locked, that we regularly look in the rear-view mirror on the motorway, that we ensure the baby has a clean nappy, that we have remembered the airline tickets, that we have made a note of our next dental appointment, that our flies are done up after a visit to the lavatory, so we should, from time to time, take note of the language we use – for a myriad of reasons. Sloppy expression betokens sloppy thinking.
You think I’m over-exaggerating? I would say that it is not possible to exaggerate exaggeration.