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