linguistics and lexicography Love English

Words change, and that’s OK

© PHOTODISCMany of the bugbears of language purists hinge on what they believe is the incorrect use of particular words. But the meanings and usage of words change all the time: new senses emerge, old ones fade or shift, and senses can vary greatly from one context to another.

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.

Etymology is not the boss of meaning. If it were, we would still be using terrific to mean frightening and deer to refer to animals in general. Insisting that a word mean A and not B, simply because A is older or more ‘logical’ or because you don’t like the B usage, is as futile as it is misguided. Yet this remains a popular strategy (if you can call it that) of hardline prescriptivists.

In a recent roundup of language links, Liz Potter shared a satirical item about a hoard of apostrophes abandoned by grammar Nazis. This amusing article pokes fun at how pedants seize on bogus rules and trivial aspects of language use, such as split infinitives and homophone confusion, to harangue other people. Lists of ‘words you’re using wrong’ pop up online like critters in a game of whack-a-mole. A recent example in the UK Independent relies heavily on the etymological and ‘one right way’ fallacies; such misinformed articles spread confusion and anxiety about the language.

Remember, the people who use a language – you and me – are the ultimate authority in what is or becomes acceptable. As George Campbell wrote in his Philosophy of Rhetoric back in 1776, ‘It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value.’

There will never be a shortage of language cranks trying to impose their preferences on others. The Real Vocabulary series here may serve as a timely antidote.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Great post Stan – as ever, we are as one: “The really fascinating thing is that we, you and me, not a group of prescriptivists, academics or publishers, are the people who invent new words and embed them in the English language.” (Me, Intro to ‘Brave New Words, 2006).

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