DEFINITION CREEP

Words mean things.  Or, at the very least, they should.

By definition creep I refer to the process by which the meaning of a given word will change over time.

As an example, in a recent response to a fellow blogger I used the word “entitlements”.  A third party blogger took umbrage, apparently because he interpreted my usage as a pejorative, a code word or some sort of talking point.  My intent was to use the word in its was original meaning; That to which the recipient is entitled.

Code words are perhaps the most egregious.  A code word, simply defined, is a word or phrase designed to convey a predetermined meaning to a receptive audience while remaining inconspicuous to the uninitiated.

When blogging I do not use talking points, euphemisms or code words and I regret that this might cause someone expecting such usage to misinterpret my point.

As bloggers, authors and poets, words are our tools.  Just as a carpenter, a mechanic, a chef, gardener or any other workman will clean, maintain and carefully store his or her tools in order to prolong their usefulness, we must protect and preserve our tools.

Words mean things but in order for them to be of any value the meanings must be commonly shared.  Definition creep and the use of code words erode those meanings.  As George Orwell described in his novel “1984”, there is great power inherent in being able to control language.

One place where definition creep can be shown for its ability to alter intent is in the Constitution of the United States.  That document, the basis for all of our laws, was written in the late eighteenth century.  The words contained therein had certain meanings at that time, meanings which have changed over the passage of time.  However, that document is commonly interpreted using current usage.

Take for instance the Commerce Claus.  “Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”     Fairly straight forward language however when written the most common usage of the word “regulate” was “to make equal”.  There was no concept of control through laws or regulations beyond seeing that everyone involved was treated the same.

A great deal of power was created through this particular case of definition creep.

A few weeks ago I saw a TV news report concerning a home invasion.  The reporter said, “the burglars gained entrance by kicking in the front door and proceeded to ‘decimate’ the apartment.

The word ‘decimate’ comes from the Latin ‘decimare’ meaning to take or destroy one tenth.  Definition creep at its finest.

I realize that I am espousing a lost cause but it is a battle that needs to be engaged.  Won’t you join with me and Don Quixote as we tilt at these abuses of the lexicon?

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About rixlibris

Retired from child care photography after thirty years of coaxing smiles and wiping noses. Currently venting years of repressed fictional story lines via self-published novels. Married and still alive in a remote corner of Waller County, Texas.
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4 Responses to DEFINITION CREEP

  1. Some argue that the language is in constant flux as an excuse for ubiquitous sloppy usage. It seems “beg the question” is now synonymous with “raise the question” and people now use “reticent” as “reluctant.” I just cringe and try to carry on. Definition creep!

  2. rixlibris says:

    We seem to be to the same page. Effective communication depends on having common definitions. Making up word meanings on the fly is, to put it in Orwell’s ‘New Speak’, “double plus ungood.”

  3. Roxanne says:

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain

    My own father took great exception to my ’80’s usage of the word “gross.” He made sure I knew what A gross was. I constantly have to educate my students on the actual definitions of retard and retarded.

  4. rixlibris says:

    My mother taught us early that words mean things.

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