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Trivial English Language Musings

Is there a word for the tendency of a word or phrase to devolve into a broader meaning?  I've noticed this a lot lately, and I'll give you three examples.

"High Tech" - If you're old, like me, you can remember when this phrase was introduced.  At that time, it meant exotic, bleeding-edge things like bioengineering, nanotech, fractals, etc.  Now it just means "technical" - a VB programmer is considered "high tech".

"Political Correctness" - This originally had a very narrow meaning.  It described the belief that political considerations should override all others - "nothing that degrades women can be called Art", comes to mind.  Nowadays, it just describes someone civilized enough not ito insult someone's religion to their face.

"Design Patterns" - Old farts think: architecture, Gang of Four, encapsulate what changes.  But lately people are using it as a synonym for "algorithm", and (unwisely, in my opinion) dismissing it altogether.

What causes this?  Is this why new words are invented all the time - we abuse the old ones until they lose their meaning?

Spaghetti Rustler
Thursday, April 17, 2003

Most words, and most other things as well, start their life within a relatively closed group. When enough time passes they become more and more mainstream.

My favourite word that has been abused until it started meaning something else is hacker. A hacker is nowadays considered by most to be a high-tech criminal, but its initial meaning was something else.

This mainstreamness can be seen all over. In our industry, when marketing picks up programmer-words, its time to invent new ones :-)

This phenomenon is not only visible in our industry. Independent vs. Hollywood films come to mind. Most new cool things happen in the independent films first, but gets noticed by the masses when they first appear in productions that come out of Hollywood.

Patrik
Thursday, April 17, 2003

Myself, I mourn the loss of the (very important) distinction between "simple" and "simplistic".

Alex Chernavsky
Thursday, April 17, 2003

Are you talking about when 'greed' stopped being a pejorative word? Yeah, that's caused some problems.

oc
Thursday, April 17, 2003

I wonder if cave-men manufacturing the new "Spiked" clubs considered themselves to be working in "Hi-Tech"

Daniel Shchyokin
Thursday, April 17, 2003

Its part of the language, and it takes other forms as well.  Witness:
    Electronic Mail
    E-Mail
    e-mail
    email

One could argue that its partly an expansion of meaning caused by adoption by people who don't quite understand the exact meaning - but its also caused by people trying to sound smart or force words into a new meaning.  And of course, sometimes old words come back with new meanings - those are fun.

Lou
Thursday, April 17, 2003

There are people who happily claim to be dumb as a post, but somehow know how to use text messaging on their mobile phones, down to the most obscure abreviations. Yet they have the cheek to call me a sad computer person...

oc
Thursday, April 17, 2003

I'm betting this thread will go on and on.

But here are my contributions:

Quantum Leap:
  Used to be a very, very tiny jump for an electron from one energy state to another.  Now is considered to be a major jump forward in technology.

Light year:
  Used to be the DISTANCE light traveled in one year.  Now can be time measurement, or a "Quantum Leap" ahead of the competition.

XYZZY
Thursday, April 17, 2003

Embezzlement used to mean 'fraud'. Now it means shrewd business practice. Plus a big f*ck you to anyone who's pension fund died in the process.

oc
Thursday, April 17, 2003

As a non-english native I was amazed to see the word above; I decided to check the meaning use Google Glossary which came up with the following:

Embezzlement:
A form of theft; the misappropriation of an employers funds by an employee.

misappropriation:
A polite word for theft.

I love the english language :-)

Patrik
Thursday, April 17, 2003

It's just part of a living language.

My favorite is virtual reality. That used to mean sophisticated real time 3D. Then journalists and commentators heard the term and incorrectly deduced that it meant the disconnected experience associated with distributed work.

So now there are heaps of people who use it in the sense of anything to do with the internet.

3D
Thursday, April 17, 2003

I'd just be happy if people learned to use apostrophes correctly. Programmers seem to be particularly bad at this, I've noticed.

John Topley
Friday, April 18, 2003

Particularly in their code :)

Stephen Jones
Friday, April 18, 2003


An apostrophe?

I bet you mean a single quote instead of those new fangled double quotes.

Joe AA
Friday, April 18, 2003

Just about everyone is bad at using the possessive apostrophe, John Topley. That is, they use one when they shouldn't. It's so prevalent it might even qualify as one of the changes to the language that we're talking about.

Correct: It's for it is
Wrong: It's for it's color

3D
Saturday, April 19, 2003

"Quantum Leap"
Sure in the real world, a quantum leap is tiny, but the meaning of the "quantum part" is that an electron jumps from one state to another without passing through any intermediate stages. It can't occupy any intermediate stages because that's a physical impossibility. There *are* no intermediate states for it to pass through.
As a marketing term, "quantum leap" is perfectly reasonable when it is used to mean the exact opposite of gradual refinement.

A.T.
Saturday, April 19, 2003

3D wrote:  "Correct: It's for it is"

"It's" can also stand for, "it has", as in,  "It's been a long time".

Incidentally, there's a Usenet group called, "alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe".  See:

http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=lang_en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&safe=off&group=alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe

Alex Chernavsky
Saturday, April 19, 2003

Thanks for the pointer to the apostrophe group, Alex. Quite amazing.

3D
Sunday, April 20, 2003

Holy Cow! Is there a group for EVERYthing? LOL.

HeyCoolAid!
Monday, April 21, 2003

you mean like alt.yes.there.really.is.a.group.for.everything?

Richard Ponton
Monday, April 21, 2003

May I just say

http://angryflower.com/bobsqu.gif

- anybody not seen this one yet?

Fernanda Stickpot
Tuesday, April 22, 2003

I think "High Tech" and "Political Correctness" are generally abused in a form of irony, like "ooh, aren't you 'high tech' with your electric light bulbs and indoor stove?" and I think "VB is high tech" is supposed to simply mean "above my level." The difference is that where that "level" may be depends on the speaker - thus the difference in perceived meaning. ;-)

The interesting abuse of "Political Correctness" I've seen lately was an ill-fated attempt by conservatives last year to start calling "suicide bombers" "homicide bombers." Some people seemed to feel a need to make them sound nastier than they are, or something. I like to believe that my pointing out this was "political correctness" (altering the language in pursuit of a political objective) contributed to the none-too-soon death of this idea.

Finally, "he's light years ahead of the competition" uses light years properly - the usage there is ambiguous & colloquial. You could easily say "he's miles ahead", connoting a race. Or you could say "he's years ahead", indicating time in the market. Either way works.

Funny thing, language. ;-)

Philo

Philo
Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Dear Ms Stickpot,
                            Angry flower has got one thing one. VCR's is the correct plural. You use the apostrophe for the plural of acronyms such as TV's and CD's and TLA's.

Stephen Jones
Tuesday, April 22, 2003

http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutspelling/pizza

Haggis
Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Stephen Jones wrote:

"Angry flower has got one thing one. VCR's is the correct plural. You use the apostrophe for the plural of acronyms such as TV's and CD's and TLA's."

Did you mean, "...one thing _wrong_"?

In any case, I see no reason why the plural of "VCR" needs an apostrophe.

See:

===================

Using an apostrophe in a plural which is not a possessive form is almost never recommended except where visual confusion would otherwise result, as for example in the sentence "Mind your p's and q's".  In forms like "the 1980s" or "two CPUs", apostrophes are not recommended today, though they were a few decades ago.

===================

http://www.alt-usage-english.org/intro_d.shtml

Alex Chernavsky
Wednesday, April 23, 2003

I did mean one thing wrong.

"A University Grammar of English" by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, which is generally accepted as the reference point for standard usage for British English, states that letter forms, abbreviatiions and numerals sometimes form plurals in 's but that the simple s form is becoming increasingly common. That was in 1976.

That doesn't mean the earlier form is incorrect; it will no doubt die our as old fogies such as myself shuffle off this mortal coil in the same way that Head Master has now given place everywhere to Headmaster. In general it takes three generations for a change in language useage to become universal, and no doubt we will see this here.

An example of change ocurring quickly is in email. William Bennet, author of the copywriters' web site, "The Slot", insists that e-mail is the correct form, and quotes CNET I believe as his authority. I'm afraid I think he's flogging a dead horse on this one; I gave up and went over to "email" about six months ago.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, April 23, 2003

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