I'm not one of the grammar police, but...

I'm in danger of really irritating myself here. The thing is, I do get irritated by people who moan about the way the usage of words change. I want to tell them to get a life. To understand that it's the nature of language to evolve. But I've just discovered there's one way that such a shift in meaning does matter to me.

The sort of thing I'm all in favour of is the way 'gay' has changed meaning. The new meaning of gay is a useful one, that didn't really have an appropriate equivalent. The old meaning of gay was a weak one - not a usage I would ever have made - and there are plenty of other ways to say it.

However, I have discovered I really don't like it when a word changes usage and there is no sensible substitute for its old meaning, while there are plenty of alternatives to the new meaning.

I came across this recently listening to someone struggling to make a speech. He talked about blind people, and deaf people. And then he talked about 'people who, er, aren't able to speak.' At one time, without negative connotations, he would have been able to talk about dumb people. But not any more. Dumb has been pushed down the 'stupid' route - for which there are so many alternatives - and so we just don't have a word meaning the inability to speak. And that's sad.

I ought to say, by the way, that this isn't a particularly modern usage - it's a misuse that has been around since the 1820s or thereabouts - but that doesn't make it any better.


  1. Like you Brian, I have little sympathy for the grammar police. Language reflects change – and that’s a good and necessary thing. But, as you point out, there are regrettable casualties along the way. Take a word like connive – when I was a lad its meaning and use reflected its etymology: ‘to wink’, from the Latin ‘connivere’. Nowadays it’s used interchangeably with the word ‘conspire’, which is a shame because there’s no other English word I know that can be used to express the idea of ‘turning a blind eye’ to nefarious activities. It would be useful, for example, to be able to say that the British government connived at the United State’s programme of ‘extradordinary rendition’.

  2. A good example, Martin - thank you.

  3. as a non-native English speaker... I was surprised about dumb - have only heard it as the newer context but maybe I'm young too? ;) - but is mute all wrong in that context?

    As for the idea of the post, I am whole hearted with you. It's annoying, and especially if there isn't any word 'left' for the specifics. In Swedish this happens often too. Especially when people (cool ones in marketing or media) get "inspired" by English words and taking a Swedish word that sound similar and "make it the same as the English word", with the result that old meaning is lost, new meaning is strange and one word less to describe something accurately.

  4. Chall, thanks for those useful observations. 'Mute' is an alternative for dumb, but not in common usage, and can be slightly confusing both because it is used a noun and also because it can be used to mean voluntarily not speaking (e.g. 'She was mute on the subject.') Dumb was the general usage word.


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