Literal Meanings and Pedantic Precision

By Mark Nichol

Earlier this year, the Merriam-Webster website, which, along with its paper-and-ink version, is notorious for its laissez-faire approach to word usage, expressed an intriguing argument in one of its Usage Notes: Chill out about preserving the “original” meaning of words.

If one were to insist that words be used only in their initial sense, one would discourage me from writing “Chill out,” because I am not alluding to temperature, and the literal meaning of the verb chill is not “calm down,” but “make colder.” That’s the point of the post, which argues that, for example, aggravate shouldn’t be required to apply only to making something worse—it’s fine to use it when describing mere irritation. The argument goes that if the restriction is to be taken to its logical conclusion, aggravate should mean only “weigh down,” because that is its original sense. (The grav in aggravate, you see, is the same as the grav in gravity.)

By the same token, the lackluster utterance of “Awesome” in response to, well, virtually any pronouncement—no exclamation point is necessary, because the comment was likely nothing like an exclamation—is acceptable. Apparently, the interest of some in preserving that term to describe something truly remarkable is invalid; after all, the original meaning was “inspiring awe,” and to employ the word for something merely spectacular demonstrates disloyalty to its etymological origins. (Awful would also have the same restriction, because it literally means “full of awe.”)

I see the point, but I also feel that indiscriminate dilution of a word’s distinct meaning paints writers into a corner. Once awesome, indiscriminately mumbled in response to myriad comments undeserving of such a potentially powerful reply, is devalued, what is left to describe something that is, well, truly awesome? On the one hand, this weakening of a word challenges the writer to find—or even craft—a suitable synonym, but it might not be long before the replacement is in turn drained of its strength.

That’s why I never write (or say) anxious when I mean eager; the former term patently alludes to anxiety, not anticipation. But I admit inconsistency—using the last word in the previous sentence reminds me that anticipation literally means not “the state of looking forward to something” but, rather, “the act of foreseeing.” (Anticipere, the Latin verb from which it is derived, means “take before.”) Nevertheless, I try to use precise, unambiguous words and will continue to preserve distinctions when possible, and I encourage careful writers to do so as well.

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11 Responses to “Literal Meanings and Pedantic Precision”

  • Dale A. Wood

    It is quite irritating that most things that are recently described as “awesome” are merely “astonishing”, “astounding”, “amazing”,
    “aggravating”, “peculiar”, or “queer”.
    “Awesome” used to have something with supernatural or holy implications – and as a distinct skeptic, I do not think that ANYTHING is “awesome”.
    This is also true: back in the 1920s, 1930s, and possibly lasting into the 1940s, there was a science-fiction monthly magazine named ASTONISHING. Then its editors and publishers decided that “Astonishing” did not reach far enough, so the changed its title to ASTOUNDING. That is one step up the scale. I think that ASTOUNDING magazine still exists.
    As for magazines named AMAZING or AMAZING STORIES, they either mutated into something else or went out of business after decades of publication. Such magazines had a hard time competing with the many S.F. movies beginning in the 1950s, and TV programs, and paperback books, and then video games, and then the Internet…
    Why bother reading a magazine of “Amazing Stories” when you could play a video games like “Space Invaders” (and better), and watch movies/TV shows like STAR TREK, the STAR WARS series, CE3K, E.T., Indiana Jones, “Battlestar Galactica”, BACK TO THE FUTURE, “Quantum Leap”, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and its sequel? Even James Bond went to outer space in MOONRAKER and beneath the sea in THUNDERBALL and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. NEVER SAY NEVER, AGAIN?
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the TERMINATOR series, John Connor told the “good” Terminator that you could start out with basic phrases like “Hasta la vista, baby,” “Chill out,” “Eat me,” and so forth, and then make permutations like “Chill out, dickwad,”. Of course, the Terminator himself made history with catchphrases “I’ll be back.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    These computer programs are both aggravating and astonishing in their ways of inserting extra carriage returns, extra blanks, and the wrong kinds of quotation marks were they do not belong.
    Why don’t they just ignore such stylistic considerations and reproduce exactly what we type?
    For example, when I want a carriage return, I will put one there, and when I want a comma, I will put it exactly where I want it.
    To me, something like “The Invaders”, and “The Invaders,” have slightly different meanings, and I want to be left alone about that, and I prefer “Spiderman” over “Spider-man”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To me, names like “Spiderman” fit right in with “Superman”,
    “Aquaman”, “Batman”, “Birdman”, “Catwoman”, draftsman, freeman, “Ironman”, lineman, “Man of Steel”, milkman, Newman, Ottoman, Pearlman, rainman, Stoneman, Steinman, trainman, Wildman, “Wonder Woman”, wingman, and yardman. To put a hyphen into any of them is astoundingly bad, but they do it anyway.
    We’re on our way to creating some new superheroes, because we have names: the Freeman, the Rainman, the Stoneman, the Steinman, and the Wildman.
    “X-men” is an exception to all of this because the hyphen is necessary. Next, we should create “Y-men” and “Z-men”.
    It has also occurred to me that the X-men should all be female and the Y-man should all be male because of the X-chromosomes and the Y-chromosomes, but a long time ago, nobody thought of this.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Your “X” should be your former wife, but your former husband should be your “Y”.
    On the other hand, your “Y” could also be your present husband, your father, brother, son, or uncle, and your “X” could be your present wife, your mother, sister, daughter, or aunt.
    It all boils down to genetics and DNA !
    This was all discovered with the help of something called “X-ray crystallography”, too, back in the 1950s, with Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Frankland in England. Francis Crick was an American, though.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Laissez faire is quite a generous description. I think MW could save a lot of ink and bits by just giving the instruction: “For any language-related question you have, just ask the most uneducated and least literate person you know what he/she thinks. We’ll go wit dat.”—the MW cleaning staff (who needs editors)
    I think this is part of a bigger issues that centers ono formal vs. informal language, or slang. The very existence of the former is perpetually (and more and more successfully) under attack by the pseudo-egalitarians who see standards of any kind as classist, racist, sexist, speciesist, vertebratist, take your pick. Accepting the use of “chill out” as common slang, informal speech, seems entirely appropriate. Allowing it, OTOH (informal, here) in a formal sense is not at all. That does not seem like a difficult distinction to make. Asserting that “slow and slowly” are interchangeable adverbs is, I think, a case of excusing slang as formally acceptable. Just ‘cuz people say it, don’t make it right” (or alright to extend the point to writing.) It’s all that “flat vs non-flat adverb” stuff— the distinction is not meaningless. The attack on adverbs and on the –lys generally has gone way past far enough. Insisting that someone, at least writingly :), go slowly, think differently, shine brightly, breathe deeply, deal honestly, hold tightly, etc. is not pedantic at all. It’s just proper, formal English. Why it that so hard?

  • John

    I’m not sure how relevant this is to the question at hand, but word ambiguity is one reason I will no longer use the word “peruse.” It seems to me that a word is of limited to no utility if it means one thing and also the opposite of that thing. I’d be interested to know how this came to be.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you, Venqax, and what you have to write is quite pertinent.
    I am unfamiliar with “OTOH”, but it reminded me of reading about the term “OHIO” which meant “Over-the-Hill In October”.
    In our first peacetime draft in the USA, certain men were drafted into the Army in 1940 with the obligation to serve for 12 months, and presumably to deter war or invasion of the United States. As the world situation got tenser and tenser during 1941, many of the men swore that they would go “Over the Hill” (absent without leave – AWOL) in October 1941, and go back home, instead of serving extended terms in the Army.
    Many of them did have their terms extended, they did NOT go OHIO, and the United States was at war on December 7, 1941. Many of the draftees stayed in the Army for a long, long time then.
    So, back to guessing: OTOH = Over The Ohio Hill (in October)?

  • Dale A. Wood

    OTOH = One Time Only Hitch ?
    OTOH = One Time Ohio Hitch?
    OTOH = One Time Only Hyphen?
    OTOH = On The OHIO Hitch?
    OTOH = Our Time OHIO Hitch?

  • venqax

    On The Other Hand. A common initialism used in texting and very informal writing nowadays, FYI.

  • venqax

    @John: Just wondering: by “ambiguity” do you mean “precision and clarity”? I know exactly what you mean and I think it such impoverishment of the language should be vigorously resisted, for practical as well as aesthetic purposes.

    “Enormity Isn’t Big, It’s Just Bad”.

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