Coinage and verbicide


ostiatim     minutatim     examussim     agminatim     affatim     caesim     ubertim     efflictim     raptim     acervatim     discretim     bacchatim     adfatim     fistulatim     iunctim     pressim     afflictim     granatim    

These are all adverbs found in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses. Apuleius was a Numidian. He liked coining words, and was fond of adverbs.   But not all the above were his: the first ten had been coined by earlier writers.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, in his War Journals:
‘And Irish writers, how they saved our language, when it was worn thin and colourless by the use of centuries… But there came others in those days, foreigners who looked on our language and literature from without, Yeats and Synge, George Moore and James Joyce, for whom the simple Saxon words had a freshness and mystery forgotten by their native users… like those Africans, Apuleius and Augustine, who recreated their Latin language in its long sterility.’

The English language has not become sterile, nor has it needed recreating; but Americans have spiced it with inspired coinages:

baby-sitter   gimmick   blurb   hangover   pep   publicity   teenager   telephone   typewriter    stunt   megabucks   hijack   notify   sidetrack   belittle

And then there is that mysterious expression o.k., which can be used as interjection, adjective, adverb or verb.

A word is coined, and gains currency. But then words can be hijacked, and the currency is debased. A colleague in the English department read The Lady of Shalott with his junior class, and it referred to a chocolate bar:

Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy…

The children were mystified: most of them did not know the original meaning of the word. It happened again a few weeks later with Daffodils:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way…

Words seem to be fair game for business (which after all is business) and for propagandists, who annex words for what they are pushing. But some verbicide results from ignorance: one journalist or broadcaster misuses a word, others imitate, and the meaning is lost. We do not have anything like the Académie Française, but there are plenty of people trying to preserve the meanings of words and phrases threatened with debasement. From a look on the web, many of them seem to be Americans.

Next post: Some enemies of teaching.

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