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

Photo of author


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

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.

Comments are closed.