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Mind Your Language!

A Sea of Ruined Words

One of the fascinations of language, and one of the charms of the English language in particular, is the playful resourcefulness, the lexical richness, and the ambiguous suggestiveness of words themselves.  And as the English language is the most agglomerative of them all, we are constantly aware of new vocabulary and usage, some of which must be rejected.  The track of “new” words is charted in the best dictionaries, so that we can see something about such established and unobtrusive exoticisms or old new words as assassin, tangerine, and ketchup and understand exactly what we are saying when we say those words, and how long we have been saying them.  I must point out that my three examples are not abstractions, so that they preserve some precision inherently.  Language is evolutionary, semantics drift, stuff happens.  That goes with the territory—it is inherent in our nature and in the nature of language.  We do not want, or should not want, language to be too orderly or utopian, as in some positivist fantasy of a one-to-one correspondence of word and thing or of signifier and signified.  The discourse of spiritual reflection or of poetry, the elbow room for humor, would be reduced or impossible in such a condition.

But, of course, that fantasy has been entertained by philosophers and sages over the years, only some few of whom deserve much attention...

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