Personal objections to etymology influence my language usage

Saturday March 14, 2009

Another dichotomy that I reject is the one in linguistics between descriptivism and prescriptivism. The descriptive perspective is more nearly true, if not necessarily more useful in application, and has gained nearly complete dominance. However, some prescriptive tendencies persist or are unavoidable, and should not be thought unreal phenomena. Prescriptivism is a natural and real use of language worthy of description, and description can always become prescriptive since the audience cannot be controlled.

The word of the day recently was "pedestrian", and reading two of its meanings I understood why I prefer not to use either. As reported by, these are "going on foot; walking" and "without imagination; dull". Even in the origins of the word in Latin, the two meanings developed together, presumably from the connection in speakers' minds between walking and boredom.

I object to this mental link between walking and dullness. I think walking is very nice, and can be quite stimulating indeed. But because other people perceive and use the derogatory meaning of the word, I hesitate to use it in either application.

I similarly prefer not to use "pedant" because it originally meant a teacher, without negative connotation, and I hold ideal teachers in high esteem. It acquired its current insulting meaning through the thought processes of people who dislike teachers, either in the abstract or due to particular bad experiences with individual less-than-ideal teachers.

Probably most other people do not consider these factors in using these words, and neither they nor I can be said to be incorrect in our proclivities. This is another example of how every person speaks their own distinct language, and collective terms for "common" languages, like "English" or "Korean" are really just semi-useful cludges, as most words are.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.