Vocabulary conservationists unite

Close-up of Rosetta stone replica

Some ancient words (from a replica of the Rosetta stone, pic by Chris 73)

Do you love words? Do you think the diversity of the English language makes the world a better place? Does you’re face wrinkle into a grimace of utter revulsion when you see the error in this sentence??

Then you’re (aaaaah) in the right place. I wept some silent pedantic tears when I learned that Associated Press are facilitating the misuse of the word ‘hopefully’. I do realise this is a lost cause – in fact I consciously made the same error in an email today. But that doesn’t mean I won’t mourn the passing of ‘hopefully’ as in ‘full of hope’, rather than ‘I hope to’.

This wistful train of thought prompted a sudden realisation. Certain words have become endangered species, ignored or exploited by the unaware or uncaring, abandoned to extinction or deleterious mutation. We need to save our vocabulary!!

I know I’m being a bit dramatic. But I don’t think my comparison is entirely invalid. Experts argue that language constantly evolves, and only the fittest words – the ones that actually get used – will survive. But we’d be shocked by this argument if it was applied to a unique organism whose like we might never see again.

Of course, the word ‘hopefully’ isn’t on the IUCN red list. Far from it. In fact it’s everywhere, being misused all over the shop. But I think this misuse constitutes a form of extinction – a loss of the ‘historical’ use of the word. We’re losing detail, losing diversity. How can this be a good thing?

Conservationists worry that beautiful and unique species are disappearing all the time – but what about beautiful and unique words, or interesting uses of words? Will Self has written a pointedly flowery article about this exact problem, but I think the diversity of words has a scientific as well as an artistic importance – precise meanings are being lost, leaving vagueness behind.

Anyone interested in the world around them should be sad to see old words disappearing – what’s wrong with enjoying words for words’ sake, rather than just as tools? Most people would be appalled at the suggestion that only ‘useful’ species should survive.

But there is a silver lining – it’s much easier to save a word from extinction than a panda. Just keep using them (words, not pandas…). I’ll be hopefully keeping an eye out for interesting, underused words – the anti-cliches.

People are already on the case, compiling lists of endangered words like ‘aerodrome’ and ‘charabanc’. And of course the scientific world is filled with brilliant words that aren’t often seen anywhere else – it’s an excellent word reserve and breeding ground, protecting and producing odd and highly specialised words like ‘idiopathic’, which is used to describe diseases of unknown cause (much more fun than saying ‘we’ve got no idea where this came from’).

If you’re a pedantic word conservationist too, you can make a difference. You don’t need a red pen – just a bit of imagination and extra effort to keep those endangered words alive.

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