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English in flux: 10 word peeves that should be laid to rest

The truism that English evolves can be difficult to accept for those of us who love the language and value the range of expression it offers. When the meaning of an old, useful word erodes, or when an unappealing upstart encroaches on the territory of an old favorite, our natural response is to resist the change. What we too often forget is that the language we love is a product of centuries of flux. Every word we use was once new, and many of our words have borne multiple now-obsolete senses through the centuries. The process continues, and the changes happening now are shaping the English of the future, which will be different but no less expressive.

This doesn’t mean all change is good or that we should all adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward the language we love. On this site, we try to do our part to preserve useful words and expressions, but we also know a lost cause when we see one. We who care about the English language might sleep a little better if we learn to let go of some of these things.

Below are ten words that have changed in the face of rabid but ultimately futile opposition from people who tend to resist language change. You don’t have to go along with these changes—we’re all free to have our own preferences—but when it comes to these words, the damage has been done and most of the English-speaking world has moved on.

1. Data

In Latin, data is plural for datum, meaning that which is given. But English is not Latin. Though the word is still sometimes treated as plural, especially in scientific writing, it is more often a mass noun denoting a collection of information. Mass nouns—i.e., nouns denoting uncountable things—are always singular. Of course, data is only one of thousands of words that English speakers have taken from other languages and bent to suit their own needs. People are hung up on this one only because it is still fairly new; data was rare in English until the early 20th century, when it began to outgrow its traditional home in scientific writing.

2. Decimate

Decimate used to bear the senses (1) to take one tenth of, especially as tax, and (2) to put to death one in every ten of, especially as punishment for mutiny. These were the word’s primary senses after it was backformed from decimation in the 17th century, but they are almost never used anymore. In researching our entry on the word, we were hard-pressed to find even one instance of decimate used this way in historical Google News and Google Books searches going back through the 19th century. Today, the word means to destroy a large portion of or to wreak great destruction on.

3. Enormity

Enormityis still sometimes used in its more traditional (but not original) senses—(1) great wickedness or evil, and (2) a wicked or evil offense—but it is much more often used to mean greatness in size. It does not matter that we already have enormousness for that purpose. Enormity sounds like it should be the noun corresponding to enormous, so that is how many English speakers understand it.

4. Homogenous

Homogeneous, with that sneaky second e, is the adjective meaning of the same nature or uniform in character or composition. Homogenous, without the second e, was originally a biological term for similar in structure between organs or parts. The good news with this one is that homogeneous still appears often. Homogenous has greatly encroached on its territory, however, and the words are now interchangeable outside science writing.

5. Evacuate


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Traditionally, evacuate meant to empty out. When there was a fire in a building, the building was evacuated. Today, however, we often hear that it is the people in the building who are evacuating or being evacuated by rescue personnel. When we hear that people have evacuated, we could cleverly quip that we hope they got to the bathroom in time, but most English speakers would not know what we’re talking about. In 21st-century English, the word goes both ways: Buildings on fire are evacuated, and people in burning buildings evacuate (i.e., leave the building).

6. Unique

While it is true that the primary dictionary definition of unique is being one of a kind, the word is widely used to mean remarkable, special, or unusual, qualities that do not necessarily make something one of a kind. When we hear someone call a movie “very unique,” we could ask whether they mean the movie was truly unique or merely unusual, but this won’t make us any friends.

7. Fulsome

Fulsome has borne the senses (1) excessively flattering and (2) offensive, but these are only two of its many definitions, and they are not the original ones. The Oxford English Dictionary lists examples of fulsome used to mean abundant or plentiful from as long ago as the 14th century, whereas those definitions considered correct by many 21st-century English traditionalists were not widely used until a couple of centuries later. Of course, the word is still sometimes used with its negative connotations intact, but when it comes to fulsome praise (where it usually appears) and similar phrases, it simply means copious.

8. Concerted

The traditional meaning of the participial adjective concerted is in concert, where concert means agreement of two or more people in a shared plan or enterprise. So a concerted effort was one in which multiple people worked in a coordinated fashion to acheive a shared goal. Today, however, a concerted effort is simply a strong or determined effort, not necessarily involving multiple people working in cooperation.

9. Ironic

The good news about ironic is that its original definition—bearing an intended meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning of the words used—is alive and well. The word has simply added a couple of new definitions—namely, (1) contrary to what is expected, and (2) improbable or coincidental. This second new sense is especially troubling, but it is widely used whether we like it or not.

10. Epicenter

An epicenter was once the center of a very bad thing, especially an earthquake or a large bomb blast. Today, it is simply the center of anything. People love using the word this way; where once we might have read, “Williamsburg is the center of the New York rock scene,” we now invariably read, “Williamsburg is the epicenter of the New York rock scene.” Perhaps this usage is merely buzzy and will go away soon, but it’s so common that trying to fight it would be futile.

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Comments

  1. In the comic book “Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman” one day his boss says “Reid! You have decimated nine milk trucks!” Reid replies, “No I didn’t. You can’t say decimate until I wreck ten of them.” Sure enough by the end of the issue his boss is gloating because Reid’s wrecked the tenth one, which not only means he can throw the word “Decimate” back at him, but it means Reid’s fired.

  2. Man, I disagree with at least half of those. At a bare minimum, why sloppily distort a word to mean what another word already means? That’s like the engineers who chose “latency” to describe a delayed signal.

  3. Nice post. “Very unique” drives me up the wall. Another thing that irritates me is the “Five items or less” sign that appears in UK supermarkets.

    • I’ll bite. How would FIVE ITEMS OR FEWER/LESS be better said?

      • He’s referring to the common complaint that “10 items or less” is incorrect because “less” conventionally applies only to singular nouns (usually quantities or uncountable things–e.g., “less money,” “less gasoline,” “less patience,”) while “fewer” applies to countable things (e.g., “fewer people,” “fewer cars,” “fewer items”).

        There are many things wrong with the less/fewer peeve. One of our favorite discussions of the topic is here: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/10-items-or-less-is-just-fine/

    • No no no! “Five items or less” is perfectly correct. Fowler’s puts it thus:

      ‘… To begin with, *less* can be idiomatically used with plural nouns when they denote something closer to an amount than a numerical quantity, as with distances, periods of time, ages, and sums of money: less than 5 miles to go / less than six weeks / children less than three years old / less than £100. Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read *12 items or less* (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read *12 items or fewer*.’

      (But as Grammarist points out, they avoid discussing such issues where people foam at the mouth with righteous indignation, so I’m happy to be disagreed with.)

      • ThreeCheeseFondue says:

        “‘… To begin with, *less* can be idiomatically used with plural nouns”

        I think you/this Fowler geezer are wrong here.
        First, since when did idiomatic usage automatically confer correctness of usage?

        Second, when we say “five items or less” this is shorthand, for what is meant/implied is “five items or less than five items”. Hence, it should be “five items or fewer” as that corresponds to the implication “five items or fewer than five items”.
        However, in contradistinction (nice word hehe), when we say “children less than three years’ old” what is implied is “children with an age less of than three years”. Since “age” is an uncountable (as opposed to years, which is countable), then “less” should quite correctly be used with “age”, as opposed to “fewer” when stating “years”. I think on this second usage, we agree.

  4. I’ve never been moved to comment here before but I’m worried to see the acceptance of some flagrant abuses of English! As most of my writing is scientific, distinctions such as data/datum are rather important to get right; the difference between homogenous and homogeneous is a stark as that between a homomorphism and a homeomorphism. I suppose that with time all such distinctions will lapse into archaism, but it will be a shame when they do.

    If you’re willing to let these go, how about further/farther? And how about, God forbid, the subjunctive mood?

    • We’ve learned that one of the most reliable ways to draw irate comments and emails is to forget to include phrases like “outside scientific contexts” and “outside science writing” where they apply. Science writers are passionately protective of their variety of English (second in this regard only to Canadians), so we take pains to point out where our reporting doesn’t apply to them.

      There’s no reason that science writers can’t preserve distinctions that the rest of the population has no use for. Legal writing is full of things like this, yet for some reason we rarely hear from legal writers when we forget to note that a piece of our reporting doesn’t apply to them (which we don’t mean in a snarky way–that we often hear from science writers but rarely from people who write about law really is an interesting mystery).

  5. The more commonly used word in science is HOMOLOGOUS not HOMOGENOUS so much. Homologous and Homology also are very commonly used words in Mathematics.

  6. reardensteel says:

    Thanks a lot, people.

    Now I can hardly concentrate on my work because I have a small tome’s worth of thoughts I really want to post here!

  7. re:#5 – actually, “people in the building who are evacuating” or “people who have evacuated are fine as the object (unspoken) being acted upon by the people in both cases is “the building”. It is the “people who have been evacuated” that are empty.

    re: #10 – I’m less bothered by the current common usage as it still seems to fit the etymology. (so the only problem is that in scientific usage (seismology) it means something different/more specific)

    #9 is definitely annoying (I partially blame Alanis Morrisette), and #3 as well (tho i suppose one could make a similar argument for this one as for #10)

    I am always happy when people (especially writers in tv/media/pop-culture) highlight the actual, traditional meanings of decimate and unique tho.

    • I disagree with your counterpoint to #5. Even if the object is the building, these sentences are incorrect, as both still indicate that the people are evacuating. To use your example above, the sentence “people in the building who are evacuating (the building)” could easily mean the moving crew hired to take everything out of the building, thus they are evacuating it (removing things from it.) In every example I can think of, it would still be more appropriate to use a word like fleeing, escaping, leaving, since it is an action performed by people, not an action performed on a building.

      • My point was that “people who are evacuating” (ie: people who are emptying a building — by either removing themselves or other people/things from the building) are not the same as “people who are being evacuated” (which are the people emptying themselves/having things removed from their bodies that are referenced in the article). I do agree (with your point) that there are better phrases to use, but was disagreeing with the article author’s quip “When we hear that people have evacuated, we could cleverly quip that we hope they got to the bathroom in time” because “people who have evacuated” doesn’t mean the same has “people who have BEEN evacuated”

  8. I always though that homogeneous was a term from chemistry. (You know, homogeneous and hetrogeneous mixtures?) A homogeneous mixture is a mixture in which the constituents can not be differentiated from each other.For example a sugar or salt solution. I could be wrong though.

  9. Is it ‘oriented’ or ‘orientated’?? I have heard so many people use the word, ‘orientated’. If a person has an orientation towards a particular mode of behaviour – e.g., gambling, is he ‘oriented’ or ‘orientated’ to gambling? Which is correct?

  10. I am taken aback that ’emails’ is being used here! Since it’s short for electronic mail and mail is not pluralized with an ‘s’, i think the correct form should be e-mail or email. I’m Jamaican and, due to our history, Jamaicans are supposed to use the Queen’s English as the official language. Due to our proximity to the U.S. however, we use quite a few words in a distinctly American sense. For example, ‘presently’ for ‘at present’ and ‘gotten’ for ‘got’.

    • I’ve never thought about this before, but now that I do, I use it both ways. I would say that I use emails when I’m talking about a number of emails, but email when I’m talking about email as a whole. I wouldn’t say “I read 15 email today” but I also wouldn’t say “I’m going to go check my emails.” I guess it’s very situational!

      • In reply to my own comment, I think the distinction comes from the way we use the word email vs mail. With mail, we send mail, and we receive mail, we can read our mail. We can even read SOME mail, but we would never read 15 mail. We would read 15 ‘letters’ that we got in the mail, but never 15 mail. So mail is what we do, and it’s also the word we use for the entirety of our mail, but when referring to specific items of mail, we say what they are. 12 postcards, 5 letters, etc. But what is the individual unit of thing in our email inbox? They aren’t e-letters, or e-postcards….they’re emails! So you get letters in your mail and you get emails in your email.

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