I have an enduring interest in the English language. I am constantly fascinated by the immense power of this communications tool. I am not a subscriber to the view that English should be carefully preserved; I feel strongly that one of its great virtues is the ability to evolve to meet the needs of the time. A language is a living thing and must be allowed its freedom.

Sometimes, however, things go a little awry or get confusing …

We all know what “famous” means. That is quite clear. What is the opposite of famous? I suppose the best I can suggest is “obscure”, but that does not seem quite right. The logical word should be “infamous”, but that means “having an extremely bad reputation” – i.e. famous for bad reasons. This is illogical, as we already have the word “notorious”, which I feel serves this function.

Another word that bothers me is “invariably”. The dictionary meaning is clear, unsurprising and unambiguous: it means “without change”. However, I have observed that many [most perhaps] people use it to mean “almost always”. For example, “He invariably eats lunch at the café” should mean that he goes there 7 days a week. However, it commonly means “he goes there nearly every day”. Is this local to me? Is it just a UK English thing?

A word that has flummoxed me of late is “quite”. It is another word where the dictionary definition seems quite clear, but is defied by many people with whom I have communicated over the years. To me, the word is a qualifier that tones down an adjective. For example, “the house is quite nice” means that it is fine, it is OK, but it is not wonderful. So, when a colleague [who speaks US English] said my writing was “quite good”, I took that as meaning that it could be better. The correct meaning of the word is “completely or entirely” – in other words it strengthens an adjective. For example, “you are quite welcome” means that your welcome is complete and total. Again, I wonder whether the toning down use of “quite” is a UK English thing? There is a further nuance. Take the phrase “she is quite the little princess”. In this case, the word seems to be making “princess” into a metaphor.

Maybe I should just give up and go learn Toki Pona …

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Posted July 6th, 2017, by

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