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In 2006 I ceased being a language columnist at The Gazette after a 15-year stint but I still wanted to connect with a word-loving Montreal readership.
The natural choice was The Senior Times — for two reasons. First, I had met editor Barbara Moser several times as we had some common friends and in casual conversations with her I realized that we shared the same passionate love of language and both were aware of the paramount importance words played in society. My second motivation was the quality of The Senior Times readership, as I believe it represents the demographic most interested in language. In writing my weekly Gazette column I received thousands of letters and emails and I’d venture to say that at least 80% of them were from those 55 and older. I suspect many younger people are not as prolific readers as their elders as the visual media have become more entrenched. I’m perturbed that this trend is intensifying because so many have become addicted to their portable electronic devices. Words matter, and judging from the nonsense that emanates from the mouths of blowhard politicians such as Donald Trump, I worry that we are living in a post-fact world where truth and the words uttered are no longer relevant.
In any case, writing for The Senior Times for the last ten years has given me an opportunity to explore some of my favourite language themes. For example, although I sometimes bemoan the lack of literacy in society, I realize that when we criticize many usages we are merely exercising our particular linguistic prejudices. Barbara Moser mentioned to me some years ago that one of her friends was upset when Barbara used the word “presently” to mean “shortly” in a sentence rather than its original sense of “immediately.” Truth be known, however, this is the way the word is most often used. In fact, if you do a Google search on the use of the word “presently” you will find that the word is used to mean “currently” over 90% of the time, By the way, the OED allows the secondary meaning of presently to mean “at the present time.”
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Barbara’s episode reminded me of a conversation I had with writer Simon Winchester years ago when we appeared on Pamela Wallin Live. Winchester related that after he had written his best-selling book The Professor and the Madman, he was deluged by angry letters from readers because the word “fulsome” was used as a synonym for “extravagant.” Readers felt that this usage was erroneous because the original meaning of the word “fulsome” was “offensively excessive.” Winchester said that detractors expressed alarm “that an authority on language would make that mistake and that my use of fulsome eroded the gobsmacked credibility of the book as a whole.” Winchester said that when he wrote his subsequent book The Meaning of Everything, he used “fulsome” in a similar fashion “to annoy the pedants who excoriated me for using it in the first.”
This raises this question: How long do we insist that older meanings prevail?
There is no simple answer to this question because there is no definitive arbiter on what qualifies as proper English. According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries, many new meanings are acceptable. For example, “peruse” can mean not only to “examine carefully” but to “read over in a casual manner.”
“Disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as “impartial” and “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” On the other hand, some dictionaries and many learned usage commentators regard these positions as linguistic heresy.
Another theme my column addresses is that different people ascribe different meanings to particular words and this partially explains why the meanings of words are always changing. For example, some years ago I was chatting with an acquaintance at a dog run and in an oblique manner I mentioned “my partner.” She responded: “Howard, I didn’t realize you were gay!” For her, “partner” was a code word for “gay.” Similarly, I once wrote an article in The Senior Times about the difference between the words “nerd” and “geek” and discovered that while many people see these terms as synonymous, others do not. I hope to continue writing for The Senior Times for another decade and will be most pleased to receive input from readers.
Editor’s Note: We are very lucky to have Howard Richler contribute his fine words to our pages every month. Howard has become a friend along with his “partner” Carol and I hope he continues to pen his “nerdy” and “wordy” columns for more than ten years! Thanks, Howard, for your terrific columns!