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January 26, 2012

In Mark Lynas’s very good book The God Species, about the damage we humans are doing to the planet and what technological/economic solutions are available, I came across the following sentence: ‘The Austrians… despise nuclear power.’ Here, despise clearly means  loathe or detest. This colloquial usage is probably used more often than the ‘correct’ meaning, which is to scorn or look down on. The two meanings are fairly close, but the difference is neatly encapsulated in John Lennon’s Working-Class Hero: They hate you if you’re clever/ And they despise a fool. Both meanings have existed side by side for a long time, and in fact I came across the colloquial meaning first. I remember, at primary school forty-two years ago,  doing a reading comprehension about the English Civil War, which contained the phrase ‘The despised Roundheads’. One of the questions was: ‘What word means “scorned” or “looked down on”?’ The boy sitting next to me (he was called John Turner) was sure it must be despised, but I told him that it couldn’t be. ‘Despise means hate,’ I said, with assurance; and I was sure, that was how I’d heard my mother use the word. I left that answer blank, but John Turner ignored me and went ahead and put despised, and he got the marks.

I can think of two other words like this which have both an official and a colloquial meaning, existing side by side, with neither displacing the other. One is ignorant, which officially means lacking knowledge, and colloquially means rude, boorish, ill-mannered. The other  is aggravate, which officially means make worse and colloquially means annoy. The colloquial meaning of the latter goes back a very long way: Humpty Dumpty uses aggravating to mean annoying in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1865).

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  1. So where do you stand on decimate? Most people use it incorrectly, so if we have an evolving, living language does that now mean the correct use is the wrong one?

    • I’d say it’s not wrong yet, but difficult to use accurately – you’d probably need to use it with ‘literally’ to make the meaning clear (and ‘literally’ itself is being degraded – see post). No doubt a time will come when the original usage will be wrong because hardly anyone will understand it. Right now we’re in a time of transition, but one can see which way it’s going. Maybe I’ll post on this next time I see an example – thanks.

  2. bruce permalink

    I think we are just about beyond the transitional phase. I suspect hardly anyone uses the real meaning except for Roman History scholars. Correct users are certainly in the minority.

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