The Queen’s English – Ever-Evolving Meanings

Drawing on Benjamin Dreyer’s “Peeves and Crotchats” in his Dreyer’s English, what follows are comments on common usage and mis-usage in some cases.

Artisanal.  It’s difficult to be in almost any kind of a store and not encounter this term, especially in describing food products.  It originally meant “made by hand”; it has come to mean anything made by natural means (is that vague enough for you?) “for which you pay and arm and a leg” according to Dreyer.

Bemused.  Originally it described a person as “bothered and bewildered” but is increasingly used to mean “wryly, winkingly amused”.  Dreyer fears that a perfectly serviceable word is becoming meaningless.

Decimate.  What originally meant to describe a punishment by death of one in ten of mutinous soldiers now describes a condition of utter destruction.

Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly, etc.  Use of words like this is like a nail on a blackboard says Dryer.  Instead use “First”, “Second”, “Third”, etc. which are called “flat adverbs”, as in “First, let me explain.”

Loath/Loathe.  “Loath” is an adjective which means reluctant; to “loathe” is a verb which means to detest.  “I am loath to make comments, snide or otherwise, about people I loathe.”

Task (as a verb).  Task is a noun but is often used incorrectly as a verb, as in “he was tasked to clean the car”.  Much better:  “He was assigned the task of cleaning the car”.

Very Unique and More Perfect.  Things are unique or not unique, or they are perfect or not perfect; there are no degrees of “unique” or “perfect” as both words describe an ultimate condition.  (But what of the Constitution’s “in order to form a more perfect union”, you ask.  They too were mortal and can be excused as they had larger issues on their minds.)

— Ken Butera

Posted in Newsletters, Queen’s English / Latin Lovers