The Grammarphobia Blog

The more things change

Q: I’m laughing my way through Origins of the Specious (I’m now on Chapter 2), but I take issue with your belief that common usage eventually legitimizes sloppy language. This is sorta like the ’60s mantra: If it feels good, do it.

A: I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. I’d like to comment on your statement that Stewart and I believe “common usage eventually legitimizes sloppy language.”

This is more or less true, of course, but it has been the case since the very earliest days of English. And we’re hardly the first to make this observation, as you’ll see as you get further into the book.

Words change over time in their meaning, their spelling, their pronunciation, their number (singular or plural), and even their function (nouns become verbs and vice versa, for instance).

What this means is that what’s considered sloppy in one century may be correct in the next, and vice versa.

Here are a few examples, many of which I’ve written about before in the blog.

In Chaucer’s time the word “girl” meant a child of either sex.

The word “cute,” back in the days when it was short for “acute,” meant shrewd or perceptive or calculating (though it has also meant bow-legged!). “Cute” in the sense in which we use it today was considered schoolboy slang in the 19th century.

“Awful” used to mean awe-inspiring. “Wonderful” meant wonder-producing (and was often negative). “Terrible” meant terror-producing.

So in 18th-century novels, you might find a magnificent cathedral described as “awful,” a sudden catastrophe described as “wonderful,” or a fierce animal described as “terrible.”

The word “nice,” at various times in the past, has meant foolish, overly fastidious, wanton, and profligate. In other words, not very nice.

“Incredible,” which once meant literally “not credible,” has come to mean very good in the mouths of some speakers. “Sophisticated” once meant corrupted, and “silly” meant happy.

You get the drift. When these words were in the process of changing and were being used in new ways, people wrung their hands and worried that English was going down the drain.

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