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An Irishman's Diary

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An Irishman's Diary

I NEARLY choked on my cornflakes the other day when reading a letter in the London Times from Prof Richard Dawkins. It was not, as you might think, about his favourite subject, Darwinism, even though last week marked the 150th anniversary of the theory of evolution. No. It was a complaint about the misuse of a verb, writes Frank McNally.

His gripe was with someone who had spoken of "addressing issues". Addressing was "for envelopes, golf balls, haggises, crowds and computer memory," he wrote. "Not issues." This is the sort of thing one is tempted to call a delicious irony, even though it doesn't quite fit any of the definitions of irony listed in my dictionary. It's merely quirky, I suppose. The point is that here we have one of Darwin's greatest disciples arguing for the linguistic equivalent of the fixity of species. Even if it's not irony, it's still delicious.

Not that I don't sympathise with him. I'm as fond of complaining about other people's language crimes as the next man. But we sticklers for correct usage are a bit like creationists. We like to think that 6,000 years ago God made all the nouns and verbs and adverbs - yea, even the prepositions, after their kind - and every verbal thing that creepeth upon the face of the earth, and that none of these have changed since.

Whereas of course the truth is that language as we know it is the product of a vast evolutionary process. It has advanced blindly down the countless generations, through trial and error and genetic mutation; and it continues to do so even as we speak. One might say that modern English, to borrow Stephen J. Gould's memorable remark about humanity, is "but an insignificant twig on a vast arborescent tree". (I don't mean to pick on Darwinians, but Gould must know that "arborescent" means "growing, formed, or branched like a tree". His metaphorical twig is therefore located on "a vast, tree-like tree". Lovely as the adjective is, it is also as redundant as the dodo.)

Of course we need rules about language, if only so that we can make informed decisions about when to break them. But the really annoying thing is that, in the long term, mistakes are often rewarded. If enough people make one, deliberately or otherwise, the mistake becomes the new rule.

So it is, I suspect, with "addressing issues". That phrase sounds like something from the lexicon of management consultants - a species that now creepeth everywhere on the face of the earth, not waiting for mutations of language to arise, but proactively mutating it.

And yet "addressing issues" already sounds vaguely legitimate to my ears. Whereas Professor Dawkins's (don't get me started on the decadent modern fad for dropping the "s" after a word ending with "s" and a possessive apostrophe, by the way) objection looks as old-fashioned as Adam's fig-leaf.

But we all have our pet hates. One of mine is the modern use of "decimate", a wonderfully precise word that, according to dictionaries, still primarily means to "reduce by one tenth". It comes down to us from the old military practice - used by the Romans - of executing every tenth member of a mutinous corps.And while, to be sure, the tradition of shooting 10 per cent of your soldiers is not as popular as it once was, there are still many occasions when the term's figurative usage would come in handy.

When a soccer player is sent off, for example, his team could be said to be "decimated" (or near enough). Even the 15-strong Kerry Gaelic football team was arguably decimated by the recent suspension of Paul Galvin, since many commentators believe he was worth a man-and-a-half. And supermarkets could use the word regularly, claiming to have decimated their prices every time they knocked 10 per cent off.

But the word is never used to mean that any more, having instead become merely an upmarket version of "devastate". The injustice is aggravated by the fact that, used this way, it makes the speaker sound sophisticated. And it is a with a feeling of outrage that I notice such charlatans are now supported by dictionaries, which have taken to including a secondary meaning for "decimate", viz: "to reduce very heavily".

But there's no use complaining about it. The word has mutated, and the mutation is thriving. Soon the original meaning will be as strange to our eyes as the Galapagos tortoise.

Just like animal species, indeed, words have developed differently on different continents. Take the simple verb "ride". Americans ride in cars, and so do some Irish people. But it is hard to imagine that the term as used on either side of the Atlantic has the same ancestors.

Which reminds me of a controversy on this letters page not long ago, concerning the past participle "gotten". You might recall that a reader dubbed it "an irritating little word" imported from "North American English", and complained that it was now "creeping into your newspaper with increasing frequency".

The biblical resonance of the term "creeping" was apt - because, as a follow-up letter pointed out, "gotten" was used in the King James Bible as long ago as 1611, before crossing the Atlantic and then coming back. It is a rare example of a word that has successfully resisted mutation for centuries. But in its own perverse way, it reminds all of us, including Prof Dawkins, why language is constantly changing: because it was begotten, not made.

© 2008 The Irish Times



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