Vocabulary Down The Memory Hole

If Spellcheck makes everyone write about the Mongol Hoard, and books and PC games are produced using this spelling, and both foreigners and the younger generation are quite honestly and innocently induced to believe by the overwhelming preponderance of this phrase that Mongol Hoard is in fact correct, what follows? Answer, the word “horde” would disappear. In the first place, this would be a pity, because the word comes to us trailing clouds of historical association. It is originally Mongolian (Turkic), meaning an army or its camp. We meet it in modern Turkish – Ordu Caddesi, or Army Boulevard, is the main street of old Stamboul, the way the Sultan’s armies marched when bound for Vienna. It has also given us Urdu, originally the lingua franca of the armies of Mughal India and the British Raj and now the national language of Pakistan. And via the Golden Horde (Altan Ord), the westernmost Mongol Khanate, we have the modern English word for a large number of Mongols or other potentially troublesome entities.

In the second place, if people use “hoard” to mean a Mongol army etc., the true meaning of hoard, as in buried treasure, tends to disappear. This no longer has a name, because its own has been appropriated for something else. Do people writing about Mongol Hoards think that it is one word with two very different meanings, or are they now actually unable to distinguish between the two concepts, collected treasures and an army of Mongols? Field studies are required.

Or consider the way that “principal”, originally meaning the head of a school, or as an adjective, “primary”, has mostly displaced its homophone “principle”. Even books and erstwhile quality newspapers do this now. The result can only be that people in general, and not merely politicians, have a shaky grasp of what “principle” once meant.

A third example: once upon a time there were two different words, “convince” and “persuade”. The former meant to bring someone to believe something, the second meant to induce them to do something. This is not quite the same thing. Conviction is a matter of evidence and argument, persuasion can use emotional appeals and even lethal threats. I convince you that there is no God, but I persuade you to lend me money. . Now, however, “convince” is used for both. That is, “convince” has displaced “persuade” for inducing someone to do something, so that you now “convince” someone to betray his comrades by waterboarding him. This in turn means that we no longer have a word for inculcating a belief by rational argument, a development that suits our increasingly irrationalist Zeitgeist down to the ground.

All across the board we find the Microsoftication of English leading to the pruning of useful concepts from the tree of the language, in a manner not entirely unlike its impoverishment by “Newspeak”. Orwell was probably wrong to think that thinking could be killed off by the reduction of vocabulary; the proliferation of meaningless cant may be more effective as a means of cerebrocide. But who can doubt that the loss of important words makes it difficult to distinguish between nuances and thereby more difficult to describe reality accurately? Well, already the majority of native English speakers probably lack the faintest idea what I am talking about.

Posted on July 7, 2011 at 10:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

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