Excerpt: Horrible Words by Rebecca Gower


1st Jan 2015 Excerpts

Excerpt: Horrible Words by Rebecca Gower

Rebecca Gowers’ new book is a hugely enjoyable and informative guide to words and their history, packed with memorable facts. But it also has a more mischievous purpose: to annoy all those people who see themselves as the guardians of proper English. We've selected the following extract.


Taking down the gripers


You know the kind I mean by gripers (and, like me, you might even be one yourself): those who rail against, say, the use of impact as a verb, or loftily explain the specific technical meaning of epicentre—even though, as Gowers characteristically puts it, “Enormous numbers of people find this distinction of absolutely no interest whatsoever, and, like it or not, epicentre now also means the ‘really, really central centre’.”

But what will particularly annoy the gripers is that Gowers’s demolition of their position is so well-informed. Plenty of words have changed their meanings over the centuries: invaluable, for example, once meant worthless. So why shouldn’t decimate be allowed to change from remove one in 10 to remove lots? (And even people who point out that decem is the Latin for ten wouldn’t insist on a quarantine lasting exactly 40 days, as for equally Latin reasons it once did.) As for unnecessary prefixes, would anybody who condemns preplanned not use intermingle, which was formed in precisely the same way—only a bit longer ago? 

And so Gowers goes on, slaughtering any number of sacred cows, up to and including the objection to disinterested meaning the same as uninterested—which it has since the early 1600s. 

Nor is she afraid to name the guilty men. Along the way, she gives a solid and often very funny kicking to such gripers as Kingsley Amis, Bill Bryson and, here, the BBC’s John Humphrys…


The excerpt

Rebecca Gowers
Rebecca Gowers. Image via Mike Williams

Often in English a word will start life as one class of word, say a noun, and only later—perhaps much later—begin to be used as another, say a verb. Take the word cloud. This started out—in the ninth century—as a noun. It meant a pile of rocks or a hill (cloud is etymologically related to both clod and clot). Then around 1300, clouds lifted off the ground to become heaps in the sky. But it was not until the 16th century that cloud was also converted into a verb, meaning to ‘darken’ or ‘obscure’. Shakespeare took the noun blanket, then three centuries old, and turned it into a verb in King Lear: ‘My face I’ll grime with filth, / Blanket my loins.’ Words are converted from verbs to nouns too. For instance, the verb to walk came before the noun walk, as in ‘Let’s go for a walk’; and the verb to think came before the noun think, as in ‘I’ll have a little think about it.’ In fact, converting in both directions is commonplace.

So far, so good, you may be saying to yourself—though if you are, you would be wrong. John Humphrys writes that, in English, ‘verbs can refresh a sentence any time they are needed—but not if they earned their crust as nouns in an earlier life’. He can have had no idea of the apocalypse he was wishing on the language. More specifically, he wonders when progress became a verb (as in, ‘Network Rail will be progressing this project on the above dates’). ‘Probably about the same time as impact, ’ he ventures glumly. The answer to his question given by the Oxford English Dictionary is 1780: ‘A
glorious war, commenced in justice and progressed in success.’ As for to impact, on this Mr Humphrys’ guess is tantalisingly close, sort of. According to the OED, impact was first converted in 1781—except that that was when it became a noun, having been a verb for the previous 180 years. 

You may be wondering what exactly the problem is here. Gripers cling to the idea that some words, or some uses of words, can be written off as horrible mostly because they are new, and therefore, by implication, redundant (nobody needed them before). Leaving aside the question of whether any part of this argument is valid, it is worth observing that lack of an ear for such things, and the will to check in a dictionary, means that those who shoot this line often mistake the age of what they’re wishing to abolish. No doubt there are entire armies of ‘regretters’ who would condemn as repulsive modern business-speak the verbs to message, dialogue, conference, and so on.

Yet, as the OED shows, these words were all first converted from nouns to verbs centuries ago. To dialogue dates from 1595. It was used by Shakespeare in Timon of Athens: ‘Dost dialogue with thy shadow?’


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