Long, long before the structuralists, post-structuralists, semioticians, and deconstructionists made the discovery that there is an often tenuous relationship between words and what they signify (taking possession of the academic sandbox ever since), their dubeity was already old-hat. The Sophists of the fifth century B.C. were doubtful that words could have fixed and objective meanings, until Plato answered them. The Skeptics, Cynics, and Stoics reaffirmed the old sophistical reservations, until the Middle and Neo-Platonists answered them. In the high Middle Ages, the problem of language reasserted itself in the controversies between the so-called Nominalists and Realists.

Beyond this, both the ancient Greeks and medieval Christians were well aware that one could use words with a conscious and deliberate ambiguism. A well-known definition of allegory (by the early seventh-century encyclopedist and Bishop, Isidore of Seville) was “saying one thing to mean another.” Poets, prophets, sibyls, and mystics employed language in this way as a matter of vocation; and of course, being the Author of Scripture, God was the Arch-Allegorist. (In using words that say one thing while meaning another, the current generation of speakers and writers may also be called allegorists, except that they are usually unconscious of their duplicity.)

Then there is the use of words to mean precisely their opposite:  for instance, when Chaucer calls his Pardoner “a noble preacher” or the Wife of Bath a “good wife”, or when Moliere’s Alceste heaps praise on the poetic doggerel of a hopeless hack. The rhetoricians have called this trope by many names, including “irony” and “sarcasm”, and it remains to this day a useful route of escape from difficult social situations.

In their essays, today’s undergraduates not only regularly choose the wrong words, but, in their casual and arbitrary selection of them–on the assumption that any word can be imperially commanded to mean whatever they have in mind–, they very often hit upon exactly the wrong word: i.e., the word that means the diametrical opposite of what they intend. The first number on Today’s List illustrates this uncanny facility:

 

     Enervate, enervated, enervating, as in, “Mayor Ford’s brilliant performance in the debates seems to have enervated his campaign.” Au contraire, “to enervate” means “to lessen the vitality or vigour of”, “to unnerve”. The contemporary abusers of “enervate” seem to think it means “energize”, an error worthy of Mrs. Malaprop or Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella character. (Never mind.)

     Aggravate, aggravated, aggravating, aggravation, as in, “You’re aggravating me”, or “I don’t need the aggravation.” Knowing a little French, or even less Latin, would go a long way toward the understanding and proper usage of this shopworn word. The French grave means “serious”, the Latin gravis, “heavy, burdensome, grievous, or important”. (Hence our adjective “grave”, and our noun “grave”—residing in which is the gravest human situation of all). The Latin verb aggravare, aggravatus means “to make heavier”. Thus in English, “to aggravate” is “to make worse, more serious, more severe”. One cannot therefore “aggravate” a person (though one can aggravate his mood—his annoyance or irritation).

     They, as in, “Honey, someone from the office left a message, but the line was bad; I think they said something about sexual harassment.” “They” is the third-person-plural personal pronoun; it requires, accordingly, a plural antecedent. The caller (singular) cannot have been a “they”. The contemporary use of “they” to mean “someone” or “something”, i.e., a person or entity of unknown identity, is a breach of kindergarten grammar.

     So, as in, “Thank you so much”, or “I am so sorry”, or “That was so delicious”, or (more imaginatively contemporary), “If Britney comes near Hunter, I am so going to scratch that shank’s eyes out.” By itself, “so” confirms a previously mentioned action or idea; it means “this/that”, “in this/that way”, as in “I think so”, or “Do so”. When employed as an adverbial modifier of an adjective, however, it introduces a clause or phrase. Thus, not “I am so sorry”, but “I am so sorry for offending her that I will don a hair shirt and retire to a monastery”, or “His injury was so serious as to have hospitalized him for a month” (cf. Fr. tant…que).  When contemporaries say “so sorry” or “so good”, they mistake our word for an intensifier: what they mean is “I am very sorry…”

     To go, to be, as in, “Then he went, ‘Let’s have another vodka’, and I went, ‘But we’ve had six already’”, or (from one Flynn McGarry, fifteen-year-old prodigy chef, as recorded in The National Post), “People are always, like, ‘You shouldn’t mark what you want by someone else’s standards’—like three Michelin stars or four New York Times stars—but it’s kind of like a goal to look up to…” When I grew up, “to go” meant (kind of like) “to move, leave, depart”; “to be” (kind of like) “to exist”. Neither meant “to say”.

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