Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding.
Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. We see or hear a word we know, used in a way that is unfamiliar to us, or seems simply wrong, and we have to think for a moment, enquire what is meant, or investigate further. This can happen when a word takes on an additional meaning – as it’s prone to do, over time. Sometimes a polysemous word is liable to become “skunked”, to use a term from lexicographer Bryan Garner.
An example is hopefully. Its widespread modern use is as a sentence adverb to express the hope that something will or won’t happen: Hopefully it won’t rain today. Will we see you later? Hopefully. But there is an older sense still in use, meaning “feeling or showing hope”: She left the audition hopefully. Some people prefer this traditional sense, and reject the later one as an error (or even an enormity, which, incidentally, is a word with similar trouble). Other people are unaware that hopefully can be used the older way at all.
So when we use hopefully, there’s a possibility it will bother some people or give them pause. Another example is disinterested. I grew up taking this word to mean “impartial”, until I began to notice it used as a synonym for “uninterested”. The potential for misunderstanding is greater here than with hopefully. If someone is required to judge a contest, and you say you would be disinterested, they could easily get the wrong idea.
Ben Yagoda’s recent article in Slate looked at some of these words and pondered the respective merits of holding on to a particular meaning or embracing an alternative one. There is no hard and fast rule; we must assess each case and decide for ourselves. I see little sense in rejecting the newer sense of hopefully (as the AP Stylebook does), but there can be times when it’s to our advantage to retain a traditional sense and resist semantic drift. As Yagoda writes, “the old meaning could be a really good meaning, which no other word conveys precisely”.Email this Post
I’m not uninterested in your blog, Stan (and thanks also for the link to Ben Yagoda) My usual position is anti-pedant, so I don’t have a problem with words developing new and different meanings. Polysemy is something humans are good at dealing with, and it’s the basis for most puns (‘A man walks into a bar …clunk..it was an iron bar’). It might just be possible to *invent* a sentence where there was an ambiguity re. the intended meaning of ‘hopefully’, but if you look at corpus data, the intended meaning is invariablyclear from the context. But like you, I have slight concerns about ‘disinterested’. The problem isn’t the newer sense of ‘not interested’ – it will usually be clear from context if that’s what someone is trying to say (‘I’m just completely disinterested in the royal wedding’). The worry, rather is that someone using it in its original (‘impartial’) sense is at risk of being misinterpreted. I wonder what Yagoda’s students would have made of this extract from our corpus: ‘Marion is more interested in the more worldly Henri … who is also a compulsive womanizer . Pauline is a disinterested observer until she develops a relationship with Sylvain ( Simon De La Brosse ), a boy of her own age…’
Thanks for your comment, Michael. I agree that context tends to make the meaning clear in most of these cases. The potential for ambiguity is sometimes overstated, I find, unless the listener or reader goes out of their way to be confused.
My hunch is that no one who takes disinterested to mean “uninterested” would consider any other possibility in the corpus example you mention. Disinterested meaning “impartial” might well lose out to the “uninterested” sense in the long run, and come to seem increasingly strange and outmoded. I’d suggest introducing “misinterested”, but it’s apt to be disleading.
Perhaps disinteresed could indicated a loss of inital interest, as in the enabled/disabled approach
Melanie: If we were to start from scratch and assign single meanings to each word in the cluster, that could work well. “At first, I was quite interested, then I became increasingly disinterested, and ended up utterly uninterested.” There’s no way to enforce these things, though: words are just too slippery.
[…] using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”: Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and […]
Every time I hear (and less often, read) these words mis-used, I have several reactions. First, I get angry at the alleged lack of knowledge explicit in the mis-use; then, on reflection, I realize that meanings always change over time to some extent – think of “nice” in its meaning of “careful,” or “precise” – and then think of the weight of common usage. It’s not hard to understand why people think that “fulsome” equals a lot, or a great deal. Regretfully (not regrettably), I think that those of us who insist on toeing the line regarding meaning, are all related to King Canute; we’re doomed to eternal frustration in one of the outer circles of linguistic hell.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Marc. I remember when singular data used to have a bad effect on my blood pressure, then I realised I was consigning myself to endless irritation by expecting the world to abide by my preferences. Of course, they seemed less like preferences than the only right way! Better to adapt, I decided – to retain older usages when they seemed useful, or fit a certain context, but not to reject newer ones automatically. I had underestimated how common and natural is semantic drift. (I’m fine with data as either singular or plural now.)
Not a day goes by that I am not reminded that language is always in flux. Along with the accidental/don’t know better uses (“hair-brained schemes” that “leave my head realing”) are new words and phrases used because they are fun or different (“ginormous” “it happened on accident”). In order to keep my sanity, I smile at what I perceive as misuses (he “dangled” a child on his knee), and offer clarification/correction when it is asked for. Maybe one of these days I’ll coin a new word or usage that catches on.
Thanks for your comment, Maggie. Some of those accidental usages can be described as eggcorns, and who’s to say some of them won’t eventually become standard. Enjoying them for what they’re worth is a sensible approach — unless, as you say, clarification is sought or advisable.
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