Little things can niggle you as you get older. Perhaps its always been like that but when life was full and busy, irritating distractions could be put in their place more easily. There were more important things to bother with. I try not to be pedantic about the nigggles, but more easily fail when its the precise meaning of words that has caught my eye or my ear.
Words have always been important to me. They have been the tools of my trade. To choose the right words to suit the moment and being careful not to speak in such a way as to kill the moment, has been important; although to destroy spontaneity in the process or to become precious about it, that’s not good either.
Apparently this is one of Michael Gove’s problems. Lord Chancellor in the U.K government, he is advising his civil servants in the correct usage of the English language. He disapproves, for example, of abbreviations – ‘does not’ rather than ‘doesn’t’ – and whilst warning against over-literalism, disapproves of sentences that begin with ‘However’ and ‘Yet’.
Hopefully my own hang-ups about language are not so doctrinaire, but although I do try not to be a grousing old man watching the world with permanent disfavour,I have been known to have a tantrum when words that for me have a clear and explicit meaning are reduced in a context that robs them of their impact.
‘Incredible’ is such a word. Its misuse is frequently deployed without thought on radio and TV programmes. I met it today when I was reading the latest Traidcraft magazine.The claim is made in one article that Tradecraft is making an incredible impact on the lives of many people across the developing world. I approve massively of their aim and mission, but not the adjective which describes it. Similarly, reflecting on the origin of the charity, there is the story of a Bangladesh greengrocer offering incredibly cheap products.
Surely incredible means beyond credibility; beyond belief. In the two dictionaries I’ve looked at its meaning has already been softened. ‘Amazing’ says one, ‘astonishing’says another. If that’s what someone wants to indicate, why not use those words instead of reducing a specific statement to a generality?
I recognise that this is exactly what happens – words do lose or at least change – their meaning and common usage contributes to that.
There are no fixed and absolute defintions. Words are our servants, not our masters. Even so……!