The Friday Fillip: Letting Go . . . Hopefully

Context is everything. Which is simply to say res non ipsa loquitur. Things need more things near them to achieve meaning, significance, import — perhaps even for us to see them. That lump of metal there . . . near the edge of a smoking crater? or on a pedestal in a room hung about with paintings? Big diff.

Now, lumps of metal don’t have as their primary function the carrying of meaning. Words, though, do. Which is to say context is routinely consulted when we utter. Goes without saying — without awareness, most of the time. Some folks, however, have to be a little more conscious than others when it comes to words and their meanings. Lawyers, for example, aren’t allowed to hit each other or judges, and so must fall back on language, particularly written language, in order to get their jobs of persuasion and agreement done.

For common lawyers particularly the tablet on which they write is almost never rasa. It sits atop a great pile of verbiage stretching back in time (and, indeed, far and wide at the same time), and this “long tail” of usage impinges on the meaning of what they write or say today. This is true of all of us all the time, of course, but lawyers — and writers — know this more acutely.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that when the past– the deep past, not just yesterday — is an important context, there’s a problem with change. “Past knowers,” historians, if you like, can be slower to come into line with the rest of us as we go on our merry way inventing new meanings for old letter clumps or even whole new clumpages (often where none was needed). I’m a resister, though I try to give in gracefully when I must. But I still say “normality” rather than “normalcy,” even though the latter was a word U.S. president Warren G. Harding came up with way back in 1920. And I can’t yet let “unique” mean just “pretty special.”

That last example illustrates one kind of change that seems to happen as words become untethered from their pasts and float into new and wider contexts: sharper meanings become more diffuse. Makes sense, of course. People see a nifty or shiny term in some technical context, and either because it’s pleasing or, which is more likely, because technical means important and who doesn’t want a piece of that, the term gets lifted and blanded.

  • “Gambit” comes from chess, where it means the sacrifice of a piece early in the game in order to gain later advantage; now it just means any tricky or other attempt to gain advantage.
  • “Dilemma” comes from rhetoric — argumentation — where it means an attempt to compel your opponent to choose between (only) two equally unpalatable alternatives (the “horns” of the dilemma); now it means any difficult problem.
  • “Decimate” comes from the ugly Roman practice of killing off a tenth of a mutinous cohort (pour encourager les autres); now the sense of proportion is gone and it just means a large amount of removal or destruction. (“Cohort,” incidentally, has gone two ways from its original meaning of a group of 480 Roman soldiers: to any group united by a feature or purpose; and down to a single “friend” or companion.)
  • “Disinterested” in law still means, or should mean, without a pecuniary or other tangible interest in the outcome of a matter, something our judges should be; but everyone else has grabbed it and uses it to mean “not caring,” leaving “uninterested” high and dry.

This movement from the particular to the general, again something that common lawyers are perfectly familiar with, happens to sayings too. So, for example, “the lion’s share” used to be a mild witticism and meant everything; now it means only “most” or “the largest portion.” To use the “carrot and stick” tactic was once much more sophisticated and meant to dangle a carrot off the end of a stick just out of the poor donkey’s reach, so that the beast would strive forever forward; now it just means the crude pairing of reward and punishment. 

Some stuff from technical sources is a bit hard to understand, so that it’s not surprising that magpies use the shiny bits in all sorts of less precise ways. Again from rhetoric, “begging the question” is a little tricky, meaning to assume the answer within the question, much like a leading question in advocacy. But in general usage it’s taken to mean simply requiring or inviting a question. The phrase “steep learning curve” means to describe a particular plot on a graph where the x axis measures time and the y axis measures the degree of learning acquired; in such a setup, a steep curve means that a lot of learning takes place rapidly, exactly opposite to the meaning that most people give it, they presumably seeing it in the context of climbing, where steepness is difficult and is conquered only slowly. And lately I’ve seen a lot of people admired as “over-achievers,” a label I’m not sure I’d want, coming as it does from psychology, where it means to describe someone who has accomplished more than would have been expected of them, given their (limited) intelligence, the opposite of an “under-achiever.”

At some point, of course, the law is seen to have in fact changed and to have let go of old contexts. I will, at some point, let go of the oldest texts and their use as contexts, as I’ve already done in myriad ways I’ve already forgotten, I’m sure. It’s just that like the law, I let go slowly and a little reluctantly. But I’ll be along soon. Hopefully.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    It’s hard enough to shift to the neologism of the day in everyday speech, but imagine it in legislation!

    A prohibition of, for example, begging the question, gets read as “you shouldn’t consider this discussion as an invitation to ask further questions”. In that case it’s almost newspeak!

  2. It is accepted among students of the language that some words are ‘skunked’, i.e. they are at a place in their evolution among inconsistent meanings where readers cannot safely be presumed to understand the meaning intended by the writer. So they should not be used at all in writing that requires the intended meaning.

    Expressions like ‘beg the question’ are skunked. Words like ‘inflammable’ and ‘disinterested’ are as well.

    Legislative drafters, in my experience, care deeply about language and meaning, and they are careful not to use words whose meanings are not sufficiently widely understood.

  3. “Fulsome” is another skunked word — though I can’t imagine a law that a drafter might make including it.