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Poignant revisited

January 7, 2018

I see that the model and actor Lily Cole has been in the news because of her appointment as a creative partner for the bicentenary celebrations of Emily Bronte’s birth. Some have argued that she isn’t qualified for the role, not being a writer herself; and literary scholar Nick Holland has resigned from the Bronte society saying that Emily would never have approved the appointment. Obviously the words storm and teacup come irresistibly to mind. But the reason I am writing about the affair is Lily Cole’s choice of words when defending her appointment. She said: “2018 offers us both the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK, and the 200th anniversary of Emily Bronte’s birth, so it feels poignant to begin the year on the topic of prejudice.”

It feels poignant. What was she getting at? The word poignant means very sad. Piercingly sad. Like a thrust from a knife (from the French word for dagger, poignard). But I don’t think that is what Lily Cole meant. I think she was employing a newer usage, or misusage of the word, to mean timely, fitting, appropriate or to the point. And I think this usage has come about because poignant sounds a bit like point.

Cole is a highly educated woman, with a First in Art History from Cambridge; one might reasonably expect her to know the meaning of the words she uses in a public statement. But perhaps I shouldn’t single her out for blame; no doubt she is using the word as she has heard it used, and it is used in that way a lot. The new use is spreading so rapidly that it cannot be long before it ousts the old meaning. So far, no dictionary that I am aware of gives the new usage. But soon they will have to.

I’m not happy about this. But I think it is unstoppable. Often when one expresses sadness about the old meanings of words falling away, people respond by saying, in a superior way, “But language changes all the time, didn’t you even know that? That’s a basic fact of linguistics. You can’t arrest the development of English, so you should just accept it.”

This is obviously true, but it misses the point and is no consolation. As I’ve said before, it’s a bit like going up to a mourner at a funeral and saying “But people have to die, didn’t you even know that? It’s a basic fact of biology. You can’t stop people dying, so you should just accept it.”

Although linguistic change in general is inevitable, specific changes may be painful to live through. So I reserve my right to mourn the poignant passing of poignant.

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  1. I feel the same way about people saying they are “humbled” (often when they receive an honour or accolade). They seem to be using it in the sense of “I am acknowledging that I shouldn’t be big-headed”. But humbled? Who is the actor who is humbling them?

    • “To be humbled” by an award, praise, etc is idiomatic usage. I think the usage is old and cross-cultural. It is synonymous with being “undeserving”.

      “Who is the actor who is humbling them?” I suppose the award the praise. It is the person who humbles oneself to acknowledge that they are not deserving or better than others.

  2. Yes, I agree. How can one possibly feel humbled by receiving an award? Humbled for not getting one, OK.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    The online dictionary lists, among others, the following synonyms for poignant: pitiful, pathetic, wretched, miserable, bitter, distressing and tear-jerking. None of these seem particularly apt.

    • Yes – clearly Cole was using it in the new sense, and I’ve seen it used in that way a lot in recent years. The dictionaries will have to catch up eventually. It is their job to record usage.

  4. The word poignant to mean very moving and affecting is, I think, quite old. And likely that is what she meant. I have been using poignant to mean “emotionally moving” for as long as I can remember.


    Cassell and Oxford English.

    • Yes, this is the original meaning, more or less. But I think Lily Cole was employing the new usage – to mean timely, appropriate or to the point. If you listen out for this new usage I am sure you will hear it.

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