In my youth, I was fascinated by words and the derivations. I remember discovering that helicopter comes from two Greek words. Not ‘heli’ and ‘copter’, as you might think, but ‘helico’ (as in helical, or helix, ie a spiral) and ‘pter’ (a wing, as in a word known to all small boys, pterodactyl). So a helicopter is a ‘spiral wing’. I think it was the ‘-pt-‘ which cunningly conceals the derivation which caught my attention. Who’s ever heard of a word beginning ‘pt’?
Then there are words whose original meaning appears to bear no relationship to their current one. For example, camera comes from the Latin camera, meaning room. A modern version of this sort of formation is satellite which used to mean an object that orbits (literally or metaphorically) a larger one, but now apparently means an antenna capable of receiving television signals.
Unfortunately, many changes to word meanings do nothing to increase the precision with which one can use them. Awful and terrible both used to have powerful meanings around awe and terror which are hard to convey in modern words. Terrorists are literally terrible but, these days, a journey to work can be terrible—not if a bomb goes off on your bus and your legs are blown off and you nearly die from loss of blood, but if the bus is five minutes late.
Awesome is pretty much on the way to triviality and, recently, there has been such an unstoppable spate of incredibles and incrediblys it’s truly incredible.
It’s worth protesting about this process because it has no benefits, but has disadvantages by removing words with specific meanings. For example, disinterested and uninterested used to have specifically different meanings, as in “the judge was not uninterested in the case (he/she was, after all, trying it) but was disinterested in that he/she did not have an interest (a stake, as in the interest on a loan) in the outcome.
In the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne titled his novel A sentimental journey, meaning a journey which sought sentiments, ie feelings, from the experiences had on it. It was nothing to do with the pejorative sense in which sentimental is now used. Yet there is perfectly good Anglo Saxon word for this meaning: mawkish.
Some current misuses are obvious, like those of silly journalists who use epicentre when they mean centre—the epicentre of an earthquake being specifically not its centre—or quantum, as in quantum leap, to mean a large jump when quantum specifically means a very small quantity (in physics) or an arbitrary amount (in general).
But the use of fiscal when financial is meant does cause problems. Fiscal relates to taxation, and financial to money. Yet people who think it is clever to use the former when they mean the latter are just confusing the rest of us. The first thing Google has just thrown up for me is a BBC news webpage headed “Ex-Rangers director Paul Murray demands fiscal transparency”. Well, perhaps he does demand transparency in taxation processes, but the first line of the report is “Paul Murray has told BBC Scotland the current board at Rangers needs to demonstrate financial transparency.” So, which is it?
Another BBC report, referring to the Office for Budget Responsibility, states “The new independent fiscal watchdog has downgraded the economic growth projections for the UK economy”. Economic growth projections are financial guesses, not fiscal ones.
And, let’s not even start on literally…
This blog was commissioned by, and originally appeared on the website of, Quicklearn