This week we’re circling back to the Stuff You Should Know podcast. How could I not when hosts Josh and Tuck dedicated an episode to our use of language?
When Words Take on New Meanings covers how the meanings of words change over time. They discuss the differences between the descriptive and prescriptive approaches to the definitions of words.
While I generally fall on the descriptive side of the fence, that definitions are not immutable, I worry about how gradients of meaning can be stripped away from our language if we are too careless. This worry was encapsulated by their inclusion of the word decimated in the podcast.
While decimated is now known to be synonymous with wiped out, it actually used to mean that something was reduced by 10%. Now, I’m not saying that any use of decimated should require figures to prove that exactly 10% of any given thing had been lost, but moving back to the original meaning gives the word a sense of scale, as opposed to having just another term for annihilated, destroyed, eradicated, etc.
In short, enjoy English for the ever-changing playground that it is, but please consider tempering that free spirit with an appreciation of the diversity within our dictionaries.
With that digression aside, the episode is a great opportunity for you to consider where you stand on the issue of definitions, so check it out.
Notable cognitive scientist Steven Pinker released a book called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker’s work is a useful examination of how we use language in the 21ist century and the traps into which writers can stumble when trying to communicate ideas.