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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Sunday, December 17, 2017

#ScienceNotSilence: Vulnerable

"Vulnerable" is one of the words that the US administration has reportedly told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention they may no longer use in budget reports.

It's an odd word, when you look at it. What can it literally mean? "Able to be vulnered"? It is in fact a 16th-century borrowing from Latin vulnerābilis wounding, from vulnerāre to wound. 

One of those many "inkhorn terms" we borrowed from Latin at the time, "vulnerable" did originally mean "able to wound", but very quickly it took on a passive sense, "able to be wounded". At first, this was literal, as in this quotation from Macbeth:
a1616   Shakespeare Macbeth (1623) v. x. 11   Let fall thy blade on vulnerable Crests, I beare a charmed Life. 
But very soon it came to be used figuratively:

b. fig. Open to attack or injury of a non-physical nature; esp., offering an opening to the attacks of raillery, criticism, calumny, etc.

1678   R. Cudworth The true intellectual system of the universe: the first part We had further Observed it, to have been the Method of our Modern Atheists, to make their First Assault against Christianity, as thinking that to be the most Vulnerable.
The most recent usage started in sociology in the 1940s. Consider the second quotation and contemplate how much wisdom is to be found in the quotations of the Oxford English Dictionary!
Designating a person in need of special care, support, or protection (esp. provided as a social service) because of age, disability, risk of abuse or neglect, etc.
1947  Journal of Educational Sociology  20 261   We have cited above the more dramatic ways in which children are hurt and neglected by their communities and their families. These are the ‘vulnerable’ children, those who need extra care, extra protection, and a background of careful planning for them.
1963  The Times Literary Supplement 15 Feb. 112/3   The care of vulnerable groups is one indication of a country's degree of civilization...
The other words reportedly banned are

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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.