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What does poignant mean? – Update

November 19, 2019

Last week on Radio 4 I heard Evan Davies ask a guest: ‘And what’s the most poignant, edgiest question you’d like to put to them?’

I’ve completely forgotten the context, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t matter. The salient thing here is Davies’s use of the word poignant to mean pointed or to the point. We are living through a radical change in the meaning of the word. It no longer means, or doesn’t primarily mean ‘piercingly sad’, as for centuries it did. It now means something like appropriate, on-target, fitting or on point. I have blogged about this before, of course – see https://brandonrobshaw.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/what-does-poignant-mean/

That was five years ago. The onward creep of poignant continues, to the extent that Davies, clearly a well-educated man, can use it in the new sense on respectable Radio 4 with every expectation of being understood. I don’t think dictionaries record the new meaning yet (at least the online dictionary I’ve just googled doesn’t) but it cannot be long before they do.

In the meantime, I feel this is a word I can no longer use. If I employ it in the old sense I run the risk of being misunderstood. And I really don’t like the new sense.

Adieu, poignant.

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14 Comments
  1. I think this is very sad. I can’t say I have noticed the ‘new’ version, but no doubt from now on I will. I will carry on using poignant for the original meaning..

    • Hi Emily. Yes, it’s sad. I think your continued use of the word in its original sense will be rather poignant (old sense) because I am sure this is a losing battle…

  2. Henry B permalink

    Interesting — I hadn’t realised the new meaning was becoming accepted. I thought people who used the word that way were simply wrong.

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on any recent changes to the language that you feel are an improvement. Wouldn’t want your blog to turn into an ‘old man shouts at clouds’ platform (am I allowed to use a laughing emoji here?).

    • Hi Henry. That is a good question. I am not automatically against all changes in language. Far from it. But now you have asked me for a recent change that i like, I am for the moment nonplussed. I shall think; and I hereby undertake to write about a change for the better soon.

      • Henry B permalink

        I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Some of the changes I like:
        – I actually think emojis are very useful for making the intention of a text clearer.
        – I like how direct writing has become. Compare a newspaper article from today with one from 100 years ago. Simplicity is seen as something desirable, not an indication of lacking education.
        – I like they/them used in the singular to indicate gender neutrality.
        – I like how writing is moving away from passive tenses.
        – I like how most people, despite the efforts of a vocal minority of twats, are trying to be more polite and avoid using language seen as offensive to minority groups. Some people call it “political correctness” – I think “politeness” is a better term.

      • Hi Henry. I agree with all of these; with the possible exception of emojis which I seldom use and have no strong feelings about. I have previously blogged about my approval of the use of ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun and I often use it.

  3. Craig permalink

    This is interesting. I haven’t realised the meaning of the would was changing either. I still only understand it as it’s original sense. So much so, that when I saw the title of your blog post I immediately thought it would have a rememberance context.

    P.S. Is your lot on the box this Christmas, and something I’ve often wondered…. Do they even tell you?

  4. Craig permalink

    Edit to the above: sorry I meant “word” not “would”.

    *Slaps hand for not reading it through* (ignore any other grammatical errors please Brandon 🙂 )

    • Hi Craig. Don’t worry about the typo. I do them all the time. I’m a terrible typist. Glad you found the post interesting. I’m sure you’ll see and hear this new usage of poignant all over the place now.

      Are we on telly this Christmas? Well, they don’t bother to tell us! But since they have repeated it for the last three years I am hoping so.

      Best wishes
      Brandon

      • Craig permalink

        Thanks Brandon. You know thinking about it I’m sure I have heard someone say “A more poignant question would be……….” if that makes sense, but I never thought anything of it until seeing your post. I’m going to look out for it now.

        Just because it makes me feel a bit embarrassed I want to add, when I write (or try to) everything in my head wants to come out at once and I have to slow it down and try to order it (that’s the best way I can describe it). Often what I do produce is still a mess. Everyone writes so well here I’m just a bit self conscious about it.

      • Craig permalink

        Hi Brandon,

        If you didn’t already know it’s the 14th December. How many years do you have to be on to become a Christmas institution 🎄🤔😊

  5. Deborah Smith permalink

    I wasn’t aware of this change of use either and it sounds ridiculous to be used in any other context. It’s a word I’m using at the moment given my Mum’s recent passing, obviously in connection to feeling sad, but wondering now if this is what others think I mean……. xx

  6. Mark Brafield permalink

    Thanks for this Brandon, but I wonder if you are not running a little ahead here ? I am bound to say that I have never heard this new, ‘wrong’ usage of ‘poignant’ but, having read your blog, I was delighted this morning to notice the correct use of the word on the Today programme (22 November 2019). At around 8.30am, the presenter (I think it was Martha Kearney) was interviewing Bing Crosby’s daughters in anticipation of the release of a new recording of his songs.

    The subject of the interview was a series of Christmas concerts that Crosby gave to entertain the troops overseas. It was a moving interview, in which the daughters explained how much satisfaction this gave the singer, and how touched he was by the many letters he received from American serviceman overseas, all of which he kept, and all of which he personally replied to.

    Following a brief clip of ‘White Christmas’, Kearney remarked how ‘poignant’ it must have been to hear Crosby singing this Christmas favourite if you were serving overseas, far from home and loved ones.

    I thought of you and cheered; all is not lost !

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