No, it’s not related to the heartbreak of psoriasis. But this condition, extension-in-lexis, can be just as irritating to many confirmed lovers of language. So many of us who work with words want our tools to be well-defined and clear in meaning, but that is not the way it is to be.
Extension-in-lexis is defined as an: “Increase of the range of meanings of a given word, often through increase of figurative use.” And it happens all the time. For example, how many of us use the word blizzard to mean a snowstorm? The truth is, blizzard originally meant violent blows, a volley of words, or even a rifle shot… not a snowstorm. But on March 14, 1870, it was used in a newspaper to denote a violent snowstorm, and since that time constant usage in that context has reversed the preferred meanings. We talk about snow blizzards and assume that people know what we mean, but if we are referring to a boxing match where an person showers his opponent with violent blows, we may say “a blizzard of punches” as though to clarify this usage. Of course, the reality is that this was one of its original definitions.
Many words have their meaning changed over time, and as with blizzard, we modern writers may not even realize that we are contributing to the changing of language. Recently there was some discussion on a list I frequent, about the usage of the word tarmac. One staunch protector of original usage stated, and factually, that actual tarmac, or tar-macadam, is no longer used for runways because modern aircraft weigh too much for tarmac to support them. But because of constant historical usage, the meaning of tarmac has been extended to cover any sort of paving material used to construct runways and their associated taxiways, parking areas, and aircraft handling areas.
My own personally-aggravating word is decimate. Part of the word is “deci,” meaning one-tenth, and originally decimate was a way for the ancient Romans to achieve discipline. If a legion was being fractious and uncooperative, the leader of that legion might walk along the line of the formation and select every tenth legionnaire to be put to death–a strong deterrent to bad discipline. It was also used sometimes in controlling rebellious towns, by putting to death one tenth of the populace, or burning one tenth of the homes, and this meaning persisted into the 16th Century. Now, solemn-faced announcers proclaim that a town was decimated by an earthquake, when they really mean it was destroyed or devastated.
The word silly in the Middle Ages actually meant happy or blessed. Over time, it came to mean innocent or harmless… then to mean weak… and now denotes foolish or weak-minded. (Of course, the opposite side of this coin is the word nice, which in the 13th Century meant foolish or stupid, and now has a much more pleasant definition, though rather soft-edged and vague.)
Of course, it’s not just ancient times that created extensions-in-lexis. How about the word boot? Sure, it’s footwear, but as often as not nowadays we use it to talk about starting a computer, or restarting (rebooting.) And whence came that meaning? It came from bootstrapping older computers, which in turn came from the expression “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” or to get oneself started without assistance.
There are also words derived from real words by seemingly logical extension, but which have no root in reality. The word uncouth in Old English originally meant unknown or strange, but over the centuries came to mean not just unknown, but unknown to be used by polite society; in a word, impolite or rude. So, we now have people who say, “He has no couth.” But there never was a word couth that meant anything in the original language, Old English. It’s a new coinage, really.
I suppose what I’m getting to is this: language is a mutable and constantly changing thing, and extension-in-lexis is only one small part of how it grows and develops over time. No matter how much the anal-retentive among us might like to keep a corral around the language, strictly defining how words are used, it can’t be done. Language is a maverick thing, and very much alive, and will not be caged.
Copyright ©2009 Tony Burton