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Why are so many contemporary professional wordsmiths language manglers?

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When I listen to radio or TV, my listening is often disturbed by mangled language. I find myself correcting the English rather than considering what is being said.

I know that, as one gets older, one tends to become less tolerant of such things but perhaps there is some justice in such intolerance.

Language is a malleable thing and needs to change to accommodate new things and new ideas. I used to get irritated when technical terms from my profession were hijacked by the community at large to mean something other than the original technical meaning. I remember, in the 1950s, being horrified when a cricket commentator remarked that many people in the crowd had transistors in their ears. I had an image of each person having a small round metal device in an ear with the three wires sticking out. He was referring the transistor radios which were then novel devices and I was thinking of the electronic component which are used in the manufacture of transistor radios. The term had drifted from engineering into common use and a certain ambiguity had arisen.

I later came to realise that most technical terms are so used and that we in the profession often hijack words for our own use. Wireless is a contraction of wireless telegraphy. Phone is a contraction of telephone. As long as we all agree on the new usage and remember the context of our conversations, misunderstandings will probably be insignificant.

There is, however, a real need for care to be taken in this drift of the language.

Where there is no common definition of a term, serious ambiguity can occur. In the field of 12 V systems for RVs, for example, there is much confusion about two electrical parameters. The amp and the amp-hour are measures of different physical quantities but many, including some who claim to be experts in the area, use amps for both quantities. The amp is a measure of the current flowing in a circuit and the amp-hour is a measure of the charge and, as its name indicates, is the result an amp flowing for an hour. While this confusion between amps and amp-hours will probably only result in flat batteries, even flat batteries can have serious consequences in some circumstances. The most destructive effect of this particular error is that the uninitiated will never be able to understand the processes at work and will therefore not be able to work out for themselves what is going on and what they need.

I recently rang my new electricity supply company to enquire about their rates. I was quoted the price in cents per kilowatt. When I said "That would be cents per kilowatt.hour" she said "Yes" but continued to quote rates in cents per kilowatt, presumably because that was what she was reading from the list she had been given by the company.

The kilowatt (kW) is a measure of power, the rate at which energy is expended. The kilowatt.hour (kW.hr) is a measure of energy and is the energy expended by a device with a power output of 1 kW operating for 1 hour. You buy energy from your electricity supply company measured in kW.hr, not power measured in kW. You buy heaters with a particular power output, measured in kW, to achieve an appropriate rate of heating and it cost you some cents per hour to run because it consumes so many kW.hr each hour it is on.

Of course there is the underlying problem that the word "power" is used colloquially to refer to energy, another case of the hijacking of a technical term to the detriment of understanding.

Looking at advertisements for gas appliances, I realised that the gas appliance industry is advertising the output of gas heaters in Megajoules (Mj). Now a Mj is a measure of energy any gas fire will output any amount of energy given enough time. The proper rating would be Mj/hr (or more conveniently kilowatts; 3.6 Mj/hr is not just equivalent to 1 kW, it is the same power measured in different units just as 212 degrees Fahrenheit is the same as 100 degrees Celsius).

Forgive a skeptic for thinking that the gas appliance industry uses Mj so that the vast majority of the population will be unable to compare the output of gas and electric heaters. Of course I may be wrong, they may just be ignorant.

The most serious misuse of the language come from politicians. I have heard politicians using double negatives when they needed to use a single negative. If the proper meaning of the double negative was used to extract the meaning from the words, the meaning would be the opposite of that which was intended. We are all supposed to accept the proposition "You know what I mean, even if I say the opposite". Why should we have to decode statements in this way and are we being stupid if we accept the obligation to find the real meaning hidden in imprecise language.

How often do you hear someone being interviewed reply to a question with the words "Yeah, No". I'm sure they know whether they mean yes or no but how are we to tell. I guess the word 'Yeah' no longer means yes, perhaps it means 'Thank you for the question' or, perhaps, 'I need a moment to collect my thoughts'.

Listening to an 'expert' on the radio recently, I heard her say "You can't underestimate the power of play in treating children with cancer". I'm sure she didn't mean what she said but her mistake was helping to redefine the word 'underestimate' to mean 'overestimate'. I wonder what word she would have used if she had wanted to say 'underestimate'.

Another recent example from a television news report was a woman who, posing as some kind of expert, used the term 'authenticism'. Either she had never met the word 'authenticity', had forgotten it and constructed the new word on the fly, or believed she would sound more authoritative if she used a word nobody else used.

The most outstanding example of this forced shift of the meaning of a word is the modern use of the word forensic. Since the advent of the TV police and forensic science dramas, it is common for people to say "Send it to forensics" meaning "Send it to the forensic science department". The original meaning of the word forensic is "of or used in connection with legal problems especially in enquiries (as in forensic science or forensic medicine)". The dominance of TV as an influence on our culture will ensure that most of the current generation will believe that forensic means 'science as used by investigators' rather than 'concerned with all kinds of legal enquiry' and the original meaning of the word will be lost forever. The use of the term "forensic accounting" will become meaningless though it is a perfectly reasonable construction.

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Created: 10.02.2005 and last revised 12.06.05
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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