21 September 2010

Worsened words

I took down my copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage this morning to check on something and my eye lit on the article on Worsened words.

Changes in the meaning of words, and still more in their emotional content, often reflect changes of opinion about the value of what they stand for. Occasionally a pejorative word becomes commendatory -- Baroque and Prestige, for example -- but more often it is the other way round.

Fowler gives several examples of such worsened words -- imperialism and colonialism were in much more favour a century ago than they are today. But as Fowler points out, this is because the things they stand for are less in favour. The words have not changed their meaning.

Other words do seem to have changed their meaning since the Second World War, or at least seem to be thought of mainly in the light of bad examples, such as appeasement and collaborator. One that has suffered an almost complete change of meaning is propaganda.

A word that seems to be in danger of developing a purely bad meaning, especially in America, is epithet. Yet when we speak of "Jesus Christ", "Christ" is in fact an epithet. Perhap it is because this particular epithet is so often used as an expression of annoyance that all epithets have been given a bad name.

And soon after reading and reflecting on this, I received the following e-mail, which gave another example of a worsening word:
We at christiancollegesonline.org recently came across your blog and were excited to share with you an article “10 Signs You’re in a Cult was recently published on our blog at (http://www.christiancollegesonline.org/blog/2010/10-signs-youre-in-a-cult/ ), and we hoped that you would be interested in featuring or mentioning it in one of your posts. If you find something interesting or similar, please let me know.

Well, I've mentioned it in my blog, but I have grave reservations about the misuse of the word "cult" as if it always and only means something bad.

The primary meaning of "cult" is a specific system of religious worship, and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with worshipping God.

But perhaps I'm just rather old-fashioned that way.

When I bought Fowler's Modern English Usage I got the revised edition, brought up-to-date by Sir Ernest Gowers. But I look on the fly-leaf and see the date when I bought it -- 23 December 1970 -- nearly 40 years ago.


James Higham said...

Positive, as in "cult classic".

Kevin said...

The Mandarin word for propaganda 宣传 is still commonly used and is a neutral term.

I work in a Chinese newspaper you see, and I occasionally contribute to the Alan Garner forum which (I think) you might be a contributor to.


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