Unexamined Words (2)

I’m afraid disapproval is a feature of being old. Other people’s cultural habits, street behaviour, political deceit, shallow relationships, celebrity mania can all evoke the dire of the elderly. The past doesn’t deserve the rosy memories we can so easily surround it with; things ‘ain’t what they used to be’ and often it’s just as well. However one of the things I do get bothered about that brings out the worst in me, is the misuse of language. There are a few words that are thrown about without thought – particularly on television – which gets me going

‘Iconic’ is one such word. The Cambridge dictionary defines its meaning as  ‘famous or popular, especially being considered to represent particular opinions or a particular time’. It derives of course from the word ‘icon’, meaning a devotional painting or image in Orthodox Christianity. For the Eastern Church icons can be so evocative that they not only encourage worship but they themselves can be the object of worship.

So the Concise Oxford dictionary narrowly defines the meaning of iconic as something that has the nature of an image or portrait. On one of BBC TV’s excellent nature programmes the other evening, several animals and birds were described as iconic, the word used to describe their originality and rarity, the antitheses of popularity and fame.

‘Incredible’ is another devalued word. It derives from the Latin incredibilis – ‘not believable’.  The Cambridge dictionary describes its meaning as ‘difficult to believe’; the Shorter Oxford goes further –‘cannot be believed’. But  ‘amazing’ or ‘very’ is how the word is often currently used. I’ve just heard a report from the floods in Somerset –‘people here’ said the reporter ‘are incredibly fed up’. No! – It is very credible indeed to be fed up when your house is under water.

‘Passionate’ is another word. The Cambridge dictionary says it indicates very strong feelings’; the Encarta world dictionary is more explicit – ‘showing sexual desire’, but the word is used so loosely today – often by people selling something or themselves – that its depth is lost. I bought some bread yesterday. There was a little sermon on the supermarket bag it was wrapped in. ‘At Waitrose we’re passionate about bringing you the very best baked goods…. our speciality range all share one special ingredient: attention to detail’. Bread is important and I for one enjoy making it, but I can’t imagine supermarket bakers having very strong or sexual feelings as they do their job. Perhaps I lack imagination.

It’s true of course that words change their meaning and anyone can make up their own language if they want to, so I suppose I have lost my case.

However, I shall doubtless go on being irritated by the thoughtless use of language.

But there are more important things to get irked about.

Bryan

See related links: Unexamined Words