The “While We’re At It” section of last month’s issue of First Things contained an interesting paragraph about the word community. Specifically: That the word is losing it’s meaning, shifting in emphasis from a defined group of people to something more abstract. Other, choicer terms must then be introduced to cover the former and more specific purpose of community.
I’ve noticed a similar trend with words like issue. Writers sometimes use this term as an all-purpose, no-fingers-pointed surrogate for more precise terms like problem or disagreement. It seems that computers don’t break anymore, they “have issues” — just like people coping with emotional difficulties are “dealing with issues.”
The meanings of many words fluctuate over time. Some words trend more specific; others become more general. Yet I cannot help but wonder sometimes if the general tendency in contemporary language is for everyone to speak like some sort of ESL student, using a conversational style not unlike the Roman copia verborum that flourished after the Silver Age of Latin literature. In the Roman Republic, sentences remained compact and speakers elected for a single precise term, even if the word were relatively rare. In the later Empire, especially as more and more non-native speakers started picking up Latin, the linguistic tendency was to use shorter, simpler words — requiring, therefore, more subordinate clauses and adjective phrases to convey meanings that could have been rendered with one well-picked but relatively rare word.
Is English undergoing a similar transformation? As the language settles as a lingua franca for international trade and as technologies like Internet-enabled messaging emphasize speed over style, it probably ought not shock anyone to see a sentence like “You can pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees in order to get it ready for baking your cookies” when “Heat your oven to 400 degrees before baking your cookies” is more concise. Yet how many would really see anything wrong with the first sentence? In fact, it’s not really wrong at all in any but the most pedantic analysis. Just inelegant. We’ve grown tolerant of simplistic prose, unnecessary over-use of the passive voice and sentences written with twice as many words as they require. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Beats me.
But it’s an interesting question to think about sometimes.