12 November 2014

Language tends to deteriate dramasticly.

Johnson, the guy who compiled that famous early dictionary of English, once said
Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay,
There seems to be a value judgement their against the natural processes of language change, but it strikes me as far less clear than others make out.

Is he talking about how language change in general? Was he lamenting the loss of conservative feature such as "thee"/"thou" and subjunctive conjugations?

Or was he talking about loss of precision in language, such as the change in meaning of "decimation" from "killing one tenth" via "massacre" to more general "destruction".

Either way, language does most definitely change, and the two words in the title that your spellchecker probably would say aren't words at all are good examples that I hear with reasonable frequency in my own life.

I don't know how many of you will have worked out there meanings and/or origins from reading them, but please leave a comment to let me know.


Of the two, this is the one I hear most often; from my own mouth, from the mouths of friends, and often even on TV. You probably hear it too. It's simply a contraction of "deteriorate". It occurs in the derived noun too: "deteriation".

The loss of a vowel in the middle of a sentence is what we call "syncope". Syncope is particularly common where a vowel is sandwiched between two instances of the same consonant. Here, it's the repeated R that triggers the lost syllable.

A more topical example of the same mechanism is the word "quantitative", as in "quantitative easing". Listen to the news, and most reporters will pronounce it fully. In an unscripted interview, though, you may just hear "quantative". Discuss the economy in a bar, and after a couple of glasses, you'll all be saying it that way. Even that form still has two Ts, so one day it might just shrink to "quantive".

What's interesting about "deteriate", though is the /i/ sound. We haven't lost the "io" from deteriorate, and just had the Rs collide, we've lost the "or". Hmmm...


(Or possibly "dramastically".) This is something I'm not aware of hearing that much. I associate it particularly with my little sister (although I'm aware that several of us in the family have said it), and a few months ago I heard it in the pub in my parents' village, so maybe it's a local thing. I'll keep my ears open.

This work is a confusion between "dramatically" and "drastically", and I was always conscious of that fact. But that doesn't mean it's not a legitimate word. We have a lot of evidence of words "falling together" in multiple languages.

For example, the conjugations of the verb "to go" in Spanish, French and Italian are a mixture of three verbs in Latin: andare, ire and vadere. But now they're just one word.

A far more recent example of falling together is the term "nailed it".

Most of us would associate that with getting something right/doing it perfectly. In that sense, it derives from the phrase "to hit the nail on the head" and evolved from saying the perfect answer to doing something really well, like "nailing" a jump at a skate park.

On the other hand, we have the management version, where "nailing" something is just getting it finished. It probably derives from the phrase "to nail ((something)) to the wall". That's pretty much the opposite meaning, because that phrase is all about not doing things perfectly. The metaphor is a kitchen cabinet -- you don't care if the door is slightly squint, you just want it on the wall so that the job's finished and everyone can go home.

Both of these long proverbial forms have reduced to the same verb, which can cause misunderstandings.

This sort of change isn't uncommon, though, so you should always be careful about discounting any theory about the origin of a term because of some other theory. It could turn out that both are right....

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