Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Enough about climate change; what about language change?

Monday's post contained the following, from Eric Partridge's Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English:
 "1. Crime, adopted from OF-F, derives from L crimen, *that which serves to sift (hence, to decide), decision, esp a legal one, hence an accusation, finally the object of the accusation—the misdeed itself, the crime ... "
The next day a sentence came to my attention in which a buyer "could not ... pay the ... price tag" for an item, emphasis mine.

Now, reporters love to write price tag for price, presumably because they think it gives their writing colloquial zing. The affectation is superfluous, except in such constructions as this:
"Juventus slap £53m price tag on Man United, City, Chelsea and Arsenal target Paul Pogba."
There, slap works with price tag to create a vivid image. The examples I generally remove from the stories, though, are on the order of:
"Finally, there's a paragraph that amounts to an explanation of just what makes for a $24 hamburger, the price tag for Harvey's product."
in which tag is unnecessary, but easily removed with damage neither to the sentence's rhythm or sense nor to the writer's pride. But "pay the price tag" suggests a shift, in which the writer imagines tag, rather than price, as the object of pay.

"Pay the price tag" is painful to me, but then, the writer in question may have seen few price tags in her life and, with the spread of online shopping, will likely see even fewer in the future. It is not out of the question that in five, 50, or 100 years, the tag in price tag will lose any relevance to what people see every day. But that does not mean the word will disappear. It could ease into a new function, the way crime acquired its current meaning. In five, 50. or 100 years, literate speakers and readers, if any of the latter remain, may speak without embarrassment of "paying the price tag" or even "paying the tag." But not as long as I have any say in the matter.
***
I thought of titling this post "The hell with climate change," which might be an example of change something like what I discuss here, in which one word replaces another as speakers and writers lose contact with an expression's original meaning. "To hell with ... " makes much more sense, doesn't it? But how many people would write it that way?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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11 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Of course this is of interest to me. As I just had a frustrating experience of looking into a word where the origins of a word have become blurry, I'm sure that future word researchers will be happy to be able to dig out this post to understand what that tag is doing there.

March 04, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

I can see one situation where "paying the price tag" would be appropriate: when there is no opportunity for negotiation. The price tags reads, $20. Customer says, "I'll give you $18." Shopkeeper replies, "No negotiations. You'll pay the price tag."

This reminds me of a phrase musicians sometimes use. To "play the ink" means to play exactly what is written; no improvisation or embellishment.

March 05, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Yes, to hell with climate change and price tags. You could write volumes about useless, redundant, too frequently used words in the English language. (Even as I write the foregoing sentence, I wonder about the ironies and redundancies it contains.)

BTW, returning to my true guilty pleasure, my blogging activity is moving away from literature and teaching, and I am instead going in a new direction. Please visit here now and then in the future:

http://ahsweetmysteriesoflife.blogspot.com/

And the invitation, of course, goes out to all of your many followers.

I do not know if the blog will be successful or popular, but (what the hell!) I at least like the title.

March 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you'll no doubt know of Eric Partridge, If you haven't flipped through his books, you ought to do so forthwith.

I thought of you when I put up this post, though crime is unlikely to turn up at your place; its meaning is so transparent--or so we think. But then, Origins is about common words, the 10,000 most common words in English, with subentries bring the number to 12,000. Even words we don't think of as odd, mysterious, or puzzling have compelling histories of their own.

March 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

RT, here's the link to your new blog: http://ahsweetmysteriesoflife.blogspot.com/. Qiu is a good choice. I cited his first novel in this blog's first post, and it remains to this day one of the most memorable crime novels I have read.

I can, and likely will rant, expostulate, and hold forth on redundancy, circumlocution, and periphrasis in English speech, writing, communication, and, naturally, discourse. But first a bit more on why I find Partridge's history of crime so interesting.

I don't know over how long a period the changes in usage he chronicles took place. but imagine you're the same person you are now, with the same attitudes toward language and usage. You're accustomed to crime in that older sense of decision or accusation. Then you start to hear or read town criers and marketplace gossips using crime to mean misdeed. You'd rant and tear your hair out and moan about last usage. And so would I. But that barbarous innovation is by now so thoroughly domesticated that we even speak comfortably of "crime" fiction.

I do not, of course, advocate a permissive stance, in which very ugly buzzword and slang coinage be accepted in formal speech and writing. But one must recognize the constant tension between tradition and innovation, an exciting phenomenon and a stimulus to study of our language, I'd say.


March 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, your example would be metonymy, or metaphor, in which one thing ("price tag") is used to express something else associated with it ("price"). The shopkeeper really means "No, you'll pay the price marked on the tag," or, in short form, "The tag price."

March 05, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

On the subject of crimes then-and-now in history, I have read extensively about Tudor history. I am always surprised about that culture's view of crimes versus our view of crimes. In many ways, we have become more civilized. In some ways, though, especially given our use of capital punishment, we remain equally barbaric and insensible.

Perhaps my views on crimes and criminals (compounded by my previous career in military justice - U. S. Navy) and my interests in early modern history are the underlying reasons for my interest in reading crime/mystery/detective fiction.

March 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The most frequent then-vs.-now comparison I have encountered marvels at the number of infractions punishable by death then. Here in America, too, shame was much more an object of punishment than it is now. See The Scarlet Letter or the stocks and pillories at colonial Williamsburg.

One also finds vestiges of the past in the names by which we call our penal institutions: houses of correction or penitentiaries. These days, truth in labeling would demand they be called houses of punishment, since that is what we as a culture seem to be interested in.

March 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, which word was the source of your frustrating experience? Lent?

March 05, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

No, Lent was the word I came upon while looking into the frustrating word. I may dig deeper later, as Lent seemed more appropriate to the day.

As to prisons, I'm not sure whether they should be called Houses of our general indifference, or houses of our mass entertainment. It depends on how many people actually watch Lockup.

March 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lockup is nice and morally neutral, I'd say.

March 05, 2014  

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