The loss of some other words, however, may do real damage by depriving us of concise, specific ways to express certain ideas. And it’s frustrating when words or their meanings are lost not because of changing needs but because of ignorance, laziness, or, in some cases, silliness.
For example, if your friend Joan says she’s thinking of buying stocks, you might be tempted to tell her to get advice from a disinterested expert. If you do, however, Joan will probably recoil: “No! I want advice from an expert who cares!” It would take a long time to explain that a disinterested expert is not an uninterested expert; rather, it’s an expert who cannot profit from any decisions Joan makes, because he or she owns no shares in (has no interests in) any companies in which Joan might invest. So chances are you’ll tell Joan to seek advice from an objective expert, even though that won’t convey your meaning as precisely. That’s one way in which words get lost: So many people use them carelessly that one hesitates to use them correctly, for fear of being misunderstood. By now, it’s probably too late to save “disinterested.” After decades of abuse, it’s become an unnecessary synonym for “uninterested,” rather than a useful word with its own distinct meaning.
“Fortuitous” is similarly endangered. “Fortuitously, both sisters arrived exactly at noon”—many people will assume that it’s fortunate the sisters arrived at the same time, not that their simultaneous arrival, for good or ill, happened by chance. In this case, I suspect, the confusion got started not because there was any need for a synonym for “fortunate” but because people thought “fortuitous” sounded fancier. I had an intelligent, well-educated colleague who always said “comprise” when he meant “compose”—“The committee will be comprised of six people elected by the faculty.” Usually, I don’t correct people when they make this sort of mistake, but once, when he drafted a proposal that would bear both our names, I had no choice. He listened impatiently while I explained the differences between the words and showed him the relevant pages in the dictionary and The Elements of Style. Then he shook his head. “But ‘comprised’ sounds better,” he said.
Probably, to many people, it does, just as “infer” sounds like a more elegant way of saying “imply.” It’s ironic when mistakes become so common that the wrong words sound more impressive than the right ones.
“Aggravate,” “hopefully,” “tortuous,” “anticipate,” “transpire”—in one sense, these words and many others seem in no danger of disappearing from the language, for we still see and hear them often. But they’re so widely misunderstood that their usefulness is disappearing. When “aggravate” degenerates into nothing but a synonym for “irritate,” we won’t need it any more—and we’ll have an unfulfilled need for a word that concisely expresses the idea of making something worse by intensifying it.
How serious is this problem? It may not be a crisis, but I don’t think it’s trivial, and I don’t think editors and English teachers are the only ones who should be concerned. In George Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government tries to limit the range of citizens’ thoughts by limiting their vocabulary. If “double-plus-ungood” is the only word available for describing something that’s foolish, or unjust, or shameful, people’s ability to explain exactly why they oppose that thing is diminished—they’ll have a hard time articulating their objection for others, perhaps an equally hard time clarifying it in their own minds. If people have only a fuzzy notion of why they distrust Big Brother, how likely are they to rebel?
Of course, we’re far from the sort of thought domination Orwell envisions. Even if all the words I’ve mentioned and dozens of others dissolve into superfluous mush, we’ll have a vast vocabulary to draw upon. Still, it makes sense to do all we can to stop the erosion. If we don’t, it might get worse. We should at least have the courage to use words correctly ourselves, regardless of the consequences. So you should tell Joan to look for a disinterested expert, even at the risk of having to explain; and I shouldn’t have waited so long to find a tactful way to talk to my colleague about “comprise” and “compose.”
The connections between language and thought are so close, so vital, that we need to guard our words fiercely. As Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In challenging times—and that means, really, in all times—we recognize the need to make our thoughts precise. We should work hard to keep our words as precise as we want our thoughts to be.