How’s That Again?

How meaning goes missing


Like any language pedant, I take a grim pleasure in observing the decline of the English tongue. All the old, interesting meanings seem to be dying off. Vagaries now means, vaguely, “vague bits.” Penultimate, of course, means “really ultimate” (to go along with “very unique”). The adjective now is cliché, not clichéd. Petard (as in “hoist with his own,” from Hamlet) is “rope,” not “land mine.” Hoi polloi is the upper crust, rather than its opposite, presumably by assimilation of hoi (Greek for “the”—polloi means “many”) to “high.” Beg the question is a lost cause; the universal definition now is “raises the question,” not “takes the answer for granted.” As for disinterested, that lovely not-quite-synonym for “impartial,” forget it.

But I especially enjoy the errors of the experts—the blunders committed by well-known writers and/or authoritative cultural outlets. Writing in The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, used locus classicus to refer to a person (though one would think that locus would be clear enough). The New York Times has given us probative to mean “representative,” full boar in a column by Maureen Dowd that was not about pigs, and apologist to signify “one who apologizes” (in an editorial, no less). Like everybody else, The New York Review of Books believes that bemused means “amused” (not “confused”) and willy-nilly “higgledy-piggledy” (not “by compulsion”)—the latter appearing in an article by Lorrie Moore. NPR has perpetrated notoriety for “fame,” misnomer for “misconception,” and per se for “so to speak”—the first two now apparently ubiquitous. The Nation has offered bugaboo for “taboo”; Sandra Tsing Loh, in The Atlantic, has used wax as a synonym for “talk” (an increasingly common howler that comes from “wax eloquent”); and Ann Beattie has contributed reticent for “hesitant,” which is well on its way to becoming the standard meaning. I told you I’m a pedant.

There is a lesson here. Idiomatic mistakes, at least the ones that stick, are not produced by the hoi polloi. They happen when people try to sound educated—or to be precise, when educated people try to sound more educated than they actually are. A little learning is a dangerous thing. You hear a word like vagaries or misnomer, you think it sounds impressive, you think you know what it means, and you deploy it the next chance you get. And then somebody who has less cultural capital than you, and who looks to you as an authority, picks it up and uses it in turn.

On the other hand, we all do it. I used to think noblesse oblige just meant “nobility,” for some reason, until I saw the wince on a colleague’s face when I used the phrase that way. Now I look things up if I’m not sure, but the problem is precisely when you are sure, and if I’m sure of anything, it’s that I’m sure more often than I have any right to be. Besides, this is one of ways that the language evolves. There are many words and phrases that I use without a thought that once meant something else, sometimes not so long ago. (Look up nice in the OED, if you want to see the process in especially vigorous action.) Semantic drift is partly the record of educated stupidity, and at a certain point you simply must surrender to it. “The hoi polloi,” for instance. A truer pedant would have blanched at that, since the “the” is redundant. But I’m speaking English, not Greek, and “the” has long been standard. I’ll keep on using it, even if it makes me part of hoi polloi.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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