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September 15, 2011

I heard a news story a couple of days ago about an elderly man who has been jailed for ‘abusing’ boys over a number of years. The report didn’t state how he had abused the boys, and it struck me that someone listening to such a report about, say, fifteen years ago, would have been rather puzzled: what exactly had he done? Insulted them, shouted at them, sworn at them? Or perhaps physically abused them: beat them, kicked them, whipped them, that sort of thing? Or neglected or starved them? Listening today it’s obvious: he sexually abused them. It’s no longer considered necessary to specify this, and indeed the news report did not bother to specify it at any point. At some time in the last few years ‘abuse’ has come to be more or less synonymous with ‘sexual abuse’ – a sad comment either on the amount of it going on, or the media’s eagerness to report such stories ( and our eagerness to hear them and experience the pleasure of moral outrage). The wider meaning of ‘abuse’  (to mistreat somebody) and the older, narrower meaning (to make personal, offensive comments or accusations)  have both now been lost. Perhaps they don’t need to be replaced, since ‘mistreat’ and ‘insult’ can do the job. A modern reader of Pride and Prejudice may soon find a line such as ‘her sisters abused it as ugly…’ (‘it’ being Lydia’s new hat) perplexing – what exactly did her sisters do to the hat?

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One Comment
  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    Explicit seems to be undergoing a similar transformation – a Wikipedia article read something to the effect of “explicit conversation with minors can be considered a crime under Texas law”; clearly they don’t mean, say, explicitly telling a child not to ride their bike indoors. Then there’s “explicit lyrics” stickers – I mean, plenty of songs have explicit lyrics; “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is explicitly about holding hands; “Holiday” is explicitly about wanting a holiday. Why don’t the stickers say “Parental Advisory – Profanity” instead?

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