Literal Meanings and Pedantic Precision
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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