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September 3, 2011

It’s not often that a crossword clue makes one’s heart leap. But last week, while doing the concise crossword in the Independent, I came across the following clue: ‘terse’, 7 letters. I felt a dawning excitement, like an angler who’s landed a strange fish, which looks as if it might be a coelacanth. Could it be…? Yes, dear reader, the answer was ‘laconic’ – and my heart was leaping because the crossword compiler had used it correctly, and just when I thought I’d never see the word used correctly in print again.

I review a lot of books, and I can tell you that the word ‘laconic’ is very popular with modern authors – and almost none of them use it in the OED sense of ‘brief, concise; (of person) affecting a brief style of speech’. Clement Attlee was being laconic when, asked by an interviewer if he had anything further to add to his statement, he replied ‘No.’ But it is now used to mean ironic, or sardonic, perhaps simply because it happens to rhyme with those words.

In fact it’s acquiring a specialised connotation of cool, detached, superior irony – it’s never used to mean savagely or bitterly ironic. ‘Laconic’ is undergoing, if it hasn’t already undergone, the phenomenon philologists know as ‘catachresis’ – picturesquely defined by Simeon Potter, in Our Language, as when words ‘fall away from their better selves’. People start using the word wrongly; the wrong usage spreads until it usurps the correct one – at which point the ‘correct’ meaning is no longer correct, and the wrong usage is no longer wrong. It may already be time to change that OED definition.

I can’t help feeling conflicted about this. On the one hand, living languages change, and it is good that they do. Two and a half centuries ago, Dr Jonson conceded, in the Preface to his dictionary, the impossibility of ‘fixing the language’. Many if not most of the words we happily employ on a daily basis once meant something completely different: ‘Silly’ once meant ‘innocent’, ‘sad’ once meant ‘serious’ etc.

But for those who care about language, such changes are always painful to live through. They don’t hurt if they’ve already happened. It’s the words that change before one’s very eyes that one itches to do something about. With the increasing number of English speakers and the increasing amount of communication amongst us, the pace of linguistic change can only increase. Which means more words will fall away from their better selves. I am not a knee-jerk conservative in these matters. Some changes are for the good. I have always liked, for instance, the way the Americans have come up with a distinction, lacking in British English, between meeting someone for the first time (‘When Harry Met Sally’) and having a scheduled meeting with someone you already know (‘I met with the President yesterday’) – analogous to the distinction in French between ‘rencontrer’ and ‘reunir’.

When words extend their meanings imaginatively –’ total’ as a verb, meaning to totally wreck; ‘judgemental’ meaning excessively given to premature and negative judgements – language is the richer for it. But the test is always: does the change give us a new shade of meaning? Or does it remove a shade of meaning? Allowing ‘laconic’ to overlap with ‘ironic’ simply makes English a less precise, less nuanced vehicle of expression.

When linguistic change impoverishes expression in this way it is legitimate to protest. Not effective, of course. Not effective in the slightest. Just legitimate.





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  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    You may be pleased to know that TVTropes has alternate laconic versions of most of their articles, & it’s the correct sort of laconic. For instance, compare with

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