Monday, January 23, 2012

Our decaying changing language

Why say "the number of murders is up" when "the murder rate is up" has the zingy cachet of science, rate conveying an aura of precision because of its association with statistics and physics?

Because a word's meaning has a way of haunting those who are ignorant of it.   I recently came across the following:
When adjusting for population, City X’s homicide rate was three times higher than City Y’s.”
That’s redundant, and it indicates that the writer does not know what rate means. Rate in this context adjusts for population by definition, 8 per 100,000 or whatever. The most useful of several definitions of rate is this, from Merriam-Webster:
a : a quantity, amount, or degree of something measured per unit of something else
Use rate as if it meant simply quantity or number, and you may be taking part in the evolution of English. But for now, at least, you'll be using the word incorrectly — and driving me nuts.
*
Read an October DBB post for another example of the kind of redundancy that results when writers remember a word but forget what it means.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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21 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Yes, I think this word is losing it's precision in everyday and apparently journalistic speech.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I assume that almost every such battle I take up is a losing one, but the process is interesting.

In this case, as well as in that of "high-level summit," a word does not simply live, then die, but rather it fades into meaninglessness. But it's like those languages about which one reads that the last remaining speaker has just died. The enshrinement of an erroneous usage as correct and accepted does not become final until the last remaining person who knows the right way is gone. Of course, by then "high-level summit" may not only be regarded as perfectly acceptable but may itself be under attack from some new and unforeseen barbarous neologism.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

It would be fun to attend a low level summit and see how it turned out.

I expect it would be depressing.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The rate of mid-level summits is a worrisome phenomena.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, they are overrated.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I just got a great v word, though I don't know what to do with it:

factismi

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But you see what I mean when I speculate about language change, don't you? It is possible that future speakers and writers will lose all knowledge of the meaning of summit and will at the same time accept it as a syonym for meeting.

Then some successor of yours in 300 years might offer whimsical guesses about how in the world a word for "Meeting" ever had anything to do with the top of a mountain.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

And they will be fascinated at the journey the word took.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I recently corrected a reporter who has used criteria as if it were singular. Not only did he accept my correction graciously, but he is by no means a dope. He is a good writer and a sharp reporter, and when people with brains incorporate a mistake into their writing and speaking, that may be a sign that the mistake will be eventually be regarded as a mistake no longer.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Factisimi sounds like a score marking (like fortissimo) by an opera composer who insists that his accompanying libretto be scrupulously faithful to history.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

From my brief and highly unofficial excursions into words and their origins, my chief theory about languages is that they have a tendency to drift.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A fascinating journey it will be for those future bloggers even though it's bumpy for those of us who are taking it now.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I was thinking it was more like a Russian appropriation of an English loan word, showing high scorn for the Western way of clinging to mere facts when statistics can be made to say anything.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You theory must be right. My experience as a professional editor suggests that the drift in a given direction may in fact be a constant give and take in both directions, only from a distance giving the impression of slow one-way movement.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think it is more a drift in a one way direction, but that once the word loses its original correctness, it is open to some interesting transmogrifications.

The high level summit, for instance, makes me think that for some reason people really, really do like to provide emphasis in language. If saying something one way is good, saying the same thing two ways is better.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, when a word starts to lose its meaning, speakers and writers rush in with emphasis to make up for the loss? Sounds good to me. Really good.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, your meaning of factisimi would sound good as an expression of disgust -- with an exclamation mark, of course.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Really, really good. Super, in fact.

January 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, evolution of the word "very" is likely of interest. I assume it its root is "veritas" and that it once meant "truly." The process by which it was watered down to the near-meaningless intensifier it is today might have some parallels to the present discussion. Really.

January 24, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

"When adjusting for population" is a dangling modifier. More troubling than the wordiness.

As for the summits: In a mountain range, you do have summits at differing heights. For that reason, it should be possible to use the word as a metaphor for meetings of different levels of importance.

January 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My complaint would have been identical and equally valid had the sentence begun "Adjusted for population."

"Summit" might be appropriate for a meeting among leaders of various levels of importance hosted by the highest leader, that is, at the summit. But that's not how the word is used.

My first beef is with the use of the adjective as a noun. I had no beef with the obsolete "summit meeting," but I don't like "summit" as a substitute for "meeting." As with the misuse of "rate" here, the reporter who wrote "high-level summit" was apparently ignorant of the word's original meaning. One writer did not know that "rate" implied adjustment for population. The other did not know that "summit" embodied "high level."

January 24, 2012  

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