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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Usually in this space I explore an expression that has come into being or undergone a significant change in the last forty years or so. This week I’d like to do something similar, but with malice aforethought. I have strong feelings about four fine old idioms that have been hijacked in recent decades, from a minor alteration that happens to get on my nerves to a significant and entirely unnecessary change in definition wrought by rank illiteracy. (All you antiquarians out there, what is “wrought” the past tense of? Hint: It’s not “wright.”) Of all my numerous pet peeves, these are some of the pettiest, although one phrase (the last) constitutes a real loss.

hark back

More and more I see this rendered as “harken back” or even “hearken back.” I don’t quibble with the spelling, but the superfluous syllable. It’s a natural confusion; “hark” and “harken” mean the same thing (“listen up”), even if we use them a little differently. “Hark back to” doesn’t pertain directly to listening, though — more like “bring to mind something that happened in the past.” So if the alteration is insignificant and inevitable, why does it stick in my craw? Because it’s a small but telling symptom of cultural decline. Why do I know, with obnoxious certainty, that there is a correct form of the phrase? Because I’ve read a lot, and therefore both my eye and ear told me right away the first time I saw the phrase misrendered, and they continue to curl my lip at each recurrence.

out of kilter

Which has mutated into “off-kilter,” probably influenced by “off-center” and possibly “off-color.” I’m not sure if this is a failure of literacy or not. It certainly looks like it, but the fact is, “out of kilter” had pretty well disappeared before “off-kilter” started getting tossed around. “Out of kilter” is old, and at bottom it meant something like “not working right,” comparable to the later “out of whack.” Used of tools or engines, not people. “Off-kilter” is similar but distinct; it implies something out of alignment, eccentric, or perhaps just unexpected. A rock band’s characteristic sound might be described as off-kilter, or a fictional world, but a person might be, too. Brits and Americans alike use it. There must be other examples of dead phrases returning in new guises. “Ramp up” comes to mind.

under duress

As this expression has become more common its meaning has begun to shift. What did “under duress” always and everywhere mean? Under compulsion or threat of force. You were acting under duress if you were forced to do something against your will; grievous harm would follow if you didn’t obey. It was primarily a legal term and is still used the same way in the law. Now there is a growing tendency to confuse “duress” with “stress” or “pressure” (but think hard day at the office, not Guantanamo). Here’s a recent example: “In addition, distributed critical infrastructure is often located in places that are physically inaccessible, lack connectivity, subject to intemperate climate or otherwise constrained by limited space. As a result, traditional security solutions intended for indoor environments are often ill-equipped to operate under duress or in harsh conditions.” In the old days, there was no such thing as an inanimate object under duress. If we could get computers to behave by threatening them with violence, I would have the best-behaved computer in the world. Here’s another: “[The coaches] don’t trust [Jets’ quarterback Geno Smith] to make the right decisions under duress.” Now this sounds like it means simply “under stress,” but quarterbacks do have to act under immediate physical menace, so it could also partake of the old definition. It’s a transitional form, but it shows a definite trend toward equating “duress” with “stress,” an unnecessary simplification. The old meaning is still predominant. In twenty or thirty years? I’ll bet it will have largely disappeared from general use.

beg the question

“Beg the question” does not does not DOES NOT mean “raise the question.” O.k., I’m done hyperventilating now; here’s a more measured view. It is a time-honored logical term that means “make a circular argument,” which in turn means one of your premises is the same as your conclusion (it’s customary to disguise that fact). So you’re not proving anything, merely restating a position you assumed without any proof. It is a common informal logical fallacy, with a nice Latin name, “petitio principii.”

You will smile indulgently at my outrage and remind me that it’s no use railing against linguistic change. But why this venerable and useful expression? It had a very specific meaning that cannot be stated so elegantly otherwise, and while perhaps not often needed, it’s most definitely useful. What we didn’t need was another way to say “raise the question.” Yet another distressing example of our fellow citizens misusing expressions they don’t understand, or half-understand, wiping away specific, well-defined meanings or shades of meaning like a Muslim fanatic destroying a centuries-old sculpture, but without the passion or even any particular awareness of the destruction. “Duress” reminds people of “stress,” or “beg the question” kinda sounds like a fancy way to say “raise the question,” so that’s good enough, right? When one word reminds you of another, they ought to mean the same thing, and what do complexity and precision matter, anyway?

These crippled expressions all result from a certain kind of illiteracy. The decline in our ear for language isn’t caused by a flat-out inability to read, but by insufficient reading. The more you read, the firmer a grasp you develop of how others use the language, and used to use it. If you don’t have that accumulation of absorbed text, well, a little learning is a dangerous thing, said Pope, and these expressions illustrate part of the reason why. You get overconfident. You develop too much faith in your intuition, your vocabulary, and your ability to deduce meaning from context, and when enough people do that, the language suffers, and our communication suffers with it. I don’t want to sound like a mandarin, but when it comes to language, I have strong tendencies that way. Sure, I’m abnormally sensitive because I’ve spent my life reading and burrowing into dictionaries. I can’t really make the case that we’re going to hell in a handbasket because everyone started misusing “beg the question.” But we do seem to have a harder time talking to each other as we huddle in our like-minded enclaves and wall ourselves off from those who disagree with us, and everyday language does seem to get more meager, constrained, and sloppy every decade. Maybe there’s a connection.


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