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Friday, February 27, 2015

10 common usages once criticized as wrong

Quick now, what's wrong with saying "the prestigious Nobel Prize"? Nothing, you say? A mere 30 or so years ago, someone would have found fault with you for saying it. 

Wordlady readers know I get a kick out of looking at bygone prescriptive comments about the language which now seem ludicrous. Here's another bundle, gleaned from the Oxford English Dictionary.

1) agenda
O.E.D. Supplement (1972) : ‘[Treating agenda as a singular rather than a plural noun is] A use now increasingly found but avoided by careful writers.’


2) contrast
Introduced c1600 in the sense "contention, opposition", it was adversely criticized in 1644 as a new-fangled term. The word soon became obsolete in the literal sense but was reintroduced with the verb as a term of art c1700.


3) forth, adv., prep., and n.

Criticized as obsolete in 1771.

4) iron
The current standard pronunciation ("I earn" rather than "I ruhn")  was still criticized by some commentators in the 18th century.

5) microbe
This word was coined by the French military doctor Charles Sédillot in March 1878 from micro- (small) + ancient Greek βίος (life). It was coined expressly to provide a suitable alternative to a group of words (such as microzoaire, microphyte, animalcule) which had been used with greater or lesser precision to denote various types of microorganism. This formation has frequently been criticized on the grounds that, had an adjective *μικρόβιος existed in ancient Greek, it would have had the meaning ‘short-lived’.


6) narrate
1813   Quarterly Review  The style [of McCrie's Knox] is..free from all modern affectation, excepting the abominable verb ‘narrate’.


7) perfunctory
The first recorded use of the word, derived from Latin perfunctorius (done in a careless or superficial manner, slight, careless, negligent) in a book by Gabriel Harvey in 1592, was almost instantly criticized as an "inkhorn term" by Thomas Nashe. Borrowing from Latin and Greek was very popular in the Renaissance, resulting in many  polysyllabic words entering English. Since they soaked up a lot of ink, they were derided as "inkhorn (ie inkpot) terms". Some of these didn't survive, but many did to become part of our standard vocabulary.  Here's another one:  

8) neophyte
1583   W. Fulke A defense of the sincere and true translations of the holie scriptures into the English tong. Except you would coin such ridiculous inkhorn terms, as you do in the New Testament, azymes, prepuce, neophyte..and such like.


9) prestigious
On the grounds that the Latin (and original English) meaning of the word was "Of the nature of or characterized by sleight of hand, juggling, conjuring or trickery; deceptive, illusory; (of a person) that cheats or deceives, deluding.", use in the sense "Having, showing, or conferring prestige or high status; inspiring respect and admiration" was frequently criticized in the 20th century, and the  O.E.D. Supplement (1982) at that entry comments ‘in this sense many prefer to use prestigeful a. or some other adjective’.

10) raise, n.
Use in the sense "pay increase" was sometimes criticized by U.S. usage guides until as late as the 1980s, "rise" being preferred. Although "rise" is the standard UK term, "raise" is standard in North America.




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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.