Queen’s English Evolving Synonyms

Meanings of words change over time mostly because of general usage.  It is not uncommon for purists, who usually wish to preserve our language “as is”, to be offended by these changes; but often to resist them is to try to reverse the changing tides.

Poet John Ciardi once said “those who care [about change] have a duty to resist.  Changes that occur against . . . resistance are tested changes.  Our language is better for them – – and for the resistance.”

         Some illustrations:

Loan as a verb.  Loan was originally a noun; the verb form was to lend.  But in the world of commerce in the years that I have been practicing it has become all but universal to accept loan as a verb.  (“The Bank has agreed to loan me $1,000″.)  This is not to discard lend completely; it is still perfectly acceptable (and to my ear, preferable) to say “The Bank has agreed to lend me $1,000″.

Credulous, which originally meant to believe too readily or to be gullible, has become synonymous with credible, which means to be believable.  Subtle distinctions like that add beauty to our expressions, but disappear when the masses ignore them.

Disinterested, which originally meant to be unbiased or objective, is now treated as synonymous with uninterested, which means having no interest.  By obliterating the difference between the words’ meanings we have lost a fine distinction, especially useful in legal writing.

Then there’s the curious case of anxious; it used to be the antonym of eager.  Anxiety implied worry.  But, having spun 180 degrees, it has become synonymous and is now used interchangeably with eager (although, depending on the context, anxious can also be used to express concern).

Enormousness originally implied size.  (“The enormousness of the universe defies our grasp”.)  Enormity originally described behavior as wicked or outrageous, but it is now used to describe something as grand in size, at the expense of enormousness which has all but fallen into disuse.

Averse (to have a strong dislike for something) looks almost like adverse (which implies a mildly negative sense such as “adverse weather conditions”), but they are not synonymous; and although they may retain their separate meanings, averse is often used where adverse is intended.  A precise writer will avoid the misuse.

I do draw the line between the verbs to lay and to lie.  It is common to hear:  “Please lay on the bed”.  Correct use:  “Please lie on the bed”.  To lay, in the present tense, must always have a direct object (“lay the book there”, “book” being the object); and to lie never has a direct object.  What has contributed to the confusion is that lay in the past tense is nominative and has no direct object.  (“Last week John lay on the bed.”)  Though the confusion may be understandable, it hardly justifies their being used interchangeably or improperly.

Language evolves, but to repeat John Ciardi’s admonition, resistance to change is good as it may insure a rational basis for a change when it finally occurs.

I am indebted to Gertrude Block of the University of Florida for much of this article.

— Ken Butera


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