linguistics and lexicography Love English

Feeling used

A new friend of mine is an equine-assisted therapist. After I revealed to him my almost-as-obscure profession (lexicographer) we found common ground in talking about a usage that particularly bothered him and that he was always at pains to correct. He said that newcomers to his profession, whether as clients or trainees, were inclined to talk about “using the horse.”

“What term do you prefer?” I asked.
“ ‘Working with’ or ‘partnering with’ the horse,” he said.

This is perfectly sensible: horses are large and intelligent creatures and they are the sine qua non of equine-assisted therapies. Their contribution to it should not be characterized with the same verb that roofers use to talk about hammers, or cooks about cornstarch. What’s really objectionable about ‘use the horse,’ however, is that it can evoke a particular quality of the verb use: the status of dominion that is implied when the subject of ‘use’ is a person and the object is some other sentient being. When a creature, whether biped or quadruped, is “used,” the implication is often that the creature is in fact wrongly used, abused: taken advantage of, put to the wrong use, exploited. It’s a peculiar thing that this verb, a short one, quite old in English, and frequent (it’s in the top 20 of English verbs) should have such widely differing connotations, depending on the words that surround it.

Was it always so? Like many extremely old, barnacle-encrusted words in English, use has several meanings that have fallen away since it first appeared, and many meanings that developed by natural extension of one of its core meanings: to put an implement or instrument to practical use. This early meaning was extended to animals before it was extended further to people, but interestingly, use took on the meaning of “have sexual intercourse with” in the first century of its debut: originally not in an exploitative sense, though it is today impossible to avoid that connotation when “use” is used in any sexual context. The generally negative association that use has in relation to people, and sometimes to animals, did not become fully established till the 19th century, nearly five centuries after use appeared in English.

At least two other verbs in English share this quality with use, of having mainly neutral connotations when the object is inanimate but negative connotations when the objects are animals or people. No one, neither man nor beast, likes to be on the receiving end of exploit or manipulate. Exploit entered English with neutral connotations and took on the negative sense that is common today about three centuries later. Manipulate, a latecomer to English (it is a 19th-century coinage) took a mere fifty years to go from “handle apparatus” to “control in a devious manner.” Another verb that may be entitled to membership in this small class is handle, the oldest of all these verbs, the only one that is an English native, and one that is also given to possible negative associations when the object is a person. Its derivative manhandle, a 15th century word, dispenses with positive meaning altogether and is a species of mistreat.

A final member of this small lexical corner of English is the idiom at the hands of someone. It is almost never used in a positive sense and generally signals human mistreatment of others. Handle and manipulate also carry the notion of hand in their etymologies. Perhaps the take-home from all this is that power corrupts, and that you should always be careful to observe what people do with their hands.

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Orin Hargraves


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