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Passive Acceptance of Change

At what point does general usage supersede original meaning?
Beg the question
These are just a few from a long list of words and expressions that seem to have lost their original meaning so that when you hear them you wonder if the speaker is trying to convey the 'real' meaning or just following a trend.
We are thus deprived of a part of our vocabulary.


  • Hi @jmurph722
    Oh, interesting point!
    I'm guessing this is a tricky thing to define, so let me see if I can get one of our editors to give you their views on this, so bear with me :)

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited December 2017

    Surely, the 'original' meaning can't be seen as 'superseded' until such time as nobody at all can understand it.

    • Fulsome The OED lists a number of negative senses which I for one would fail to understand if I heard or read them.

    • Beg the question is quite widely understood in the old 'unjustifiably assuming the premise of the argument' sense — because it's so often discussed. However, I don't think it would be a good idea to use is in this sense without a careful explanation.

    I don't think we're 'deprived' though the loss of this sense. It's much more useful to say "But you're assuming X". And we seem to feel 'enriched' as it were by access to a phrase which conveys the idea 'leads in turn to this other question'.

    • Enormity in its 'original' sense was used much as we use abnormality today. I don't think this would be understood, and the OED marks it as obsolete. I don't think it's possible to hear or read the word without assuming that 'enormous' is part of the meaning.

    The OED paraphrases the non-obsolete senses as 'extreme or monstrous wickedness' and 'a gross and monstrous offence' — in 'later use', that is.

    I suspect the senses 'enormous thing' and 'enormousness' will feature in the updated revision of the OED. But these senses co-exist with uses that preserve the sense of wickedness or offence. And there's surely never any difficulty in understanding what the speaker or writer means to convey.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited December 2017

    Very interesting comment @DavidCrosbie, thank you! - particularly the point you make about 'beg the question'.
    I'm '@ mentioning' @jmurph722 so they are alerted of your reply.

  • I continually notice the word incredible. I chuckle every time Rachel Maddow alludes to "incredible reporting."

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited December 2017

    The OED notes as early as 1482 an incredible sweetness (I've modernised the spelling.) They define the sense as

    In weakened sense: Such as it is difficult to believe in the possibility of, or to realize; said esp. of a quantity, quality, number, etc., of a degree beyond what one would a priori have conceived as possible; inconceivable, exceedingly great.

    This accounts for Ms Maddow's allusion to — presumably — 'reporting of such a high a quality as to beggar belief'.

    There might be more scope for misunderstanding if she were to speak of an incredible report.

    The sense of incredible which is closer to Latin incredibilis (i.e. 'impossible to accept as true') is scarcely more 'original'. The earliest cited by the OED is from 1412, a mere 70 years earlier: incredible ... to see how he ... put the Greeks to flight (with some modernised spelling and word order).

  • @jburlingame1 @jmurph722 and @DavidCrosbie
    This turned into a very interesting discussion!

    I also asked about it internally, and one of our Head of Dictionaries had this to say:

    "1) Polysemy (the phenomenon of words having multiple meanings) is well established in English. Most of the time, people can distinguish from context which meaning of a word is meant, and native speakers aren’t bothered by (for instance) the fact that a “unicorn” can now refer to a tech company as well as a mythical beast.

    2) Sometimes, polysemy involves a new use of a word that arises out of a misunderstanding, or introduces a subtle shift that may cause confusion, or is regarded as incorrect by some people. This is the case with, for instance, the use of nonplussed to mean ‘unsurprised’ or the use of literally to intensify figurative expressions (‘my ears were literally burning’). In cases like this, the two meanings may eventually both be accepted, or one meaning may replace the other, with the traditional meaning eventually being only a historical curiosity. The latter seems to be happening with beg the question, whose traditional sense has become rather rare. When a word is undergoing this type of shift, it may become a so-called ‘skunked term’."

    Interesting that 'beg the question' was also mentioned (I didn't say it had already been brought up in other comments).

    I hope this helps! :)

  • I'm new to this community, and already Mr. Crosbie has broadened my understanding of incredible. I can see spending way too much time here.

  • Hi @jburlingame1,
    I'm happy it's been useful for you - and do spend as long as you like here, it's your community!

    @DavidCrosbie, tagging you here so you can see the comment above, I'm sure you'll like it :)

  • Zizek quote: We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

  • a new word for the illusion, and falseness of the word change, could be: chame, change + same.

  • edited February 2018

    and for the passive acceptance of change, could be: accenge, acceptance + change

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