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Craig R. Harmon

Dictionaries have always been descriptive: check out the Oxford English Unabridged Dictionary and it documents every meaning showing up in written sources in the English Language. People's usage changes and always has.

It is true that language has changed more quickly in recent times. In my opinion, this has been under two impulses.

First, new things are created, replacing old things, change the way we live. We can create new words, as we do, to meet these challenges, or we can use old worlds in new contexts and thus, with altered meaning.

Second, the rise of individuality and the impulse to distinguish oneself from others, thus, for example, during the beat generation, new and colorful expressions entered the language and old words were united in ways never before done and given meanings they never had.

Economic prosperity has both permitted and fueled these twin impulses toward shifting usages.

The impulse to innovate drives change in language usage and the need to communicate drives uniformity.

Language is, and always has been, a living thing. It's just more lively today.

Jeremy Pierce

Craig is right. There have never been dictionaries whose purpose wasn't simply chronicling word usage. What's different now is that people are deliberately redefining words for political purposes. When such usage catches on, we have a change in the language, because the word is now being used to mean something different by enough speakers of the language that the language has truly changed. The thing to complain about isn't language change, which has always taken place, but those who initially use words creatively for political purposes.

The examples you give are different, though. There's a genuine debate over the concept of justice, not the mere meaning of a word. This is a philosophical debate. There's much support for some of the principles you decry in the prophets, not that they would support socialism. They even repeatedly use the word translated as 'just'. Even if 'justice' just means fairness, then the debate will be over what fairness requires. If it requires not allowing people to start with advance position, then you get socialism. If it doesn't, then you don't. It's a philosophical dispute, not a linguistic one.

The abortion thing isn't a misuse of any particular word. It's not a different meaning to the words. It's a euphemism, a particularly old rhetorical trick designed to distract from the horrors of what you're really talking about. It's simply a focus on some aspects of something to draw people's attention from another aspect. The term 'collateral damage' does the same thing.


Noah Webster from the preface to his dictionary:
"It has been my aim with this work, now offered to my fellow citizens, to ascertain the true principles of the language, in its orthography and structure; to purify it from some palable errors, and reduce the number of its anomalies, thus giving it more regularity and consistency in its forms, both of words and sentences; and in this manner, to furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue, which we shall not be ashamed to bequeath to three hundred millions of people, who are destined to occupy, and I hope, adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction.

If the language can be improved in regularity, so as to be more easily acquired by our own citizens, and by foreigners, and thus be rendered a more useful instrument for the propogation of science, arts, civilization and christianity; if it can thus be rescued from the mischievous influence of sciolists and that dabbling spirit of innovation which is perpetually disturbing its settled usages and filling it with anomalies; if, in short our vernacular language can be redeemed from corruptions, and philology and literature from degredation; it would be a source of great satisfaction to me to be one among the instruments of promoting these valuable objects..."

Obviously Dr. Webster saw his work not as description of how words were being used, but a reference for learning how they were to be properly used.

Just to ward off any misunderstanding that could happen by taking these quotes out of context, he earlier notes and praises the development of the language, especially as regards the differences brought about in British vs. American English because of our different circumstances. He distinguishes between the corruptive or degrading changes in the language, which hamper clear communication, and the developments that enhance communication.

Debbie V

I've been reading the dictionary for entertainment since I was a little kid. My daughter caught this as well, although now she has branched out into other languages. Words are fun! One word can hold a world of thought and history.


I get somewhat annoyed at how we tend to demonize words and only use that particular word instead of the more commonly used synonym when we're talking about sin.

As an example: If you LUST after a woman you've already committed adultery in your heart. Lust is just another word for WANT. In German, if you offer something to someone, you ask if they lust it. Do you want some coffee? Hast du Lust?

Another example: The proper word for a female dog is 'bitch'. Now that we've demonized it, I can't bring myself to calling my female dog one of those. I made a joke about it once and my wife was shocked that I said it.

It's funny how we can use words like stool, defecation and droppings but there's one particular word that means the exact same thing that we shouldn't say. Authors of some of the fiction books I read aren't ignorant of this; some of them create curse phrases for their worlds. "Light!"

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