DEGRADATION — CAN YOU FIX IT?

2017-07-26shakespeare-twitter-cartoonTextbooks dealing with the English vocabulary never avoid the theme of sense degradation. The classical examples are the words which at present signify things and ideas both positively and negatively colored, and in which the negative connotations are comparatively recent creations: busy (engaged in activity and meddlesome, prying), to execute (to put into effect and to put to death), to fabricate (to make and to concoct in order to deceive), fancy (imagination and capricious liking), a story (an account of an event and a lie, an anecdote), etc.

In many cases the degraded meaning of a word ousted its primary meaning long ago: villain (a wicked person, a scoundrel, before – a farm laborer), knave (a morally worthless person, before – a boy), rascal (a mean, dishonest fellow, the original meaning – a common soldier, a person of the lowest class).

In today’s blog I’ll try to focus the reader’s attention on some recent examples which I came across while studying English texts.

In the first place, a meaning of a word can degrade when it is put in an inappropriate context. As an example, here are two sentences:

  1. She blubbered and told me about her luckless life and brine spouted from her eyes.
  2. She sobbed softly and told me about how unhappy she was, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.

My question is: which of these two sentences do you think a modern writer would be most likely to use if he wished to cause the reader to respond sympathetically to the given character? Definitely, it’s the second sentence. The words blubber, luckless, brine and spout sound sort of ironic. Although, if used in proper contexts, they would be quite acceptable (the child seemed to be blubbering something about a lost ring; a potassium chloride brine; water spouted from the faucet).

Sometimes words can be “compromised” because of their modern associations with wrong concepts that came from astrology, alchemy or earlier medicine. In the 18th century, the lexical unit white-livered (or lily-livered) stood for lack of courage. Actually, it has preserved this meaning until now. But nowadays, the medical notion that a deficiency of bile causes a pale liver and, as a result, lack of vigor or courage, has proved to be wrong, and the word white-livered degraded to a stronger definition cowardly <the people of Britain are sick and tired of white-livered politicians who claim to represent us>.

The following example is more complex. In the two sentences 1) He’s innocent as a lamb and 2) He is an innocent, the adjective innocent in the first sentence means guiltless. The same meaning guiltless, free of sin which a NOUN could have, might be applied mostly to a CHILD, and what’s more, very often in the biblical or lofty sense (the massacre of the innocents). Incidentally, a few popes of Rome carried the name Innocent too. But in our example (the second sentence), the noun an innocent refers to an ADULT and means a simple-minded and/or slow-witted person, a simpleton. The word an innocent in this sense has developed along the same line as the word silly (originally: blessed, happy, blissful, holy, and then, through the meaning helpless, defenseless – to the meaning foolish, feeble-minded).

A real discovery for me, as I was reading for this blog, was the usage of the form drank, which is the past simple verb of to drink, in the function of the past participle. The following example is taken from the prestigious Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/exploring-magical-worlds-ayahuasca-drinkers-316215)

Except about half the audience, by a show of hands early on, had drank ayahuasca—an Amazonian brew that causes one to vomit and to have intense visions for hours, and which many say has incredible healing powers, leading to recovery from illnesses no other treatment touched, like depression, drug addiction and even psoriasis.

My research into the problem has revealed that drank as the 3rd form (the past participle) of the verb to drink  is listed in some dictionaries and is used widely as such. The reason for the shift is that, in users’ minds, there exists mistaken identification of the participial drunk with the adjectival drunk (inebriated, intoxicated with an alcoholic drink), and speakers may feel awkward saying something like I have drunk too much water.

Another word which is suffering semantic degradation nowadays is the word fix. The main factors that contribute to its “suffering” are, firstly, its colloquial character, secondly, the multitude of its meanings, and, thirdly, it being used, practically, by all layers of society, including lower populace (in my previous blog I mentioned that the usage of bloody by lower classes could be a reason for the word bloody acquiring a profane meaning). Alongside “normal” passages, I came across quite a number of contexts when the word was used for an underhand or illegal arrangement (collusion resulted in tax fixes for gamblers, to fix a race), a difficult situation, (we’re in a terrible fix), a threat or vengeance taken on (that’ll fix him good), or even an injection of a narcotic. In its ungrammatical form that came from the Southern dialects of the United States, the verb to fix invaded regular grammar. “To be fixin’ to”  means on the verge of or in preparation for doing a given thing. It follows a form of the verb to be and consists of the present participle of the verb fix followed by to: They were fixin’ to leave without me. Describing future events fixin’ to can refer only to events that immediately follow the speaker’s point of reference.  One cannot say We’re fixin’ to have a baby in a couple of years. The use of fixin’ to as an immediate future is very common in African American Vernacular English. Although this expression sometimes appears in writing as fixing to, in speech it is usually pronounced fixin to.

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