Enormity of disinterested treacle

Enormity of disinterested treacle

The Edit Part II

Continuing The Edit, a series of writing and editing in modern communications.

Are you a staunch upholder of standards of English in the face of constant decline? Or one of those slack, lackadaisical types who thinks anything goes?

To put it another way, how do you use the word “treacle”?

Staunch upholders should only ever use “treacle” in its correct sense of “any of various preparations used as an antidote to poisoning” [in particular a snakebite] as Collins Dictionary has it. If they want to refer to something sweet and sticky, they find a more appropriate word such as “molasses” or “syrup”.

OK, maybe not. Collins describes that use as “obsolete” and it has been since sometime in the 17th century. Because herbal cures were often sweetened with honey, “treacle” came to refer to the sweet substance itself, not the remedy within it.

So people happily accept that the meanings of words change through time. But staunch upholders are less happy when they see this process going on in front of them. Take two differing recent occurrences of the word “disinterested”.

Commenting on reports that Lord Hain, who “outed” Sir Philip Green as the businessman involved in the “#MeToo” scandal, might have had a business connection with one of the law firms involved, Dominic Grieve MP  told The Times: “That there is now a suggestion that it might have been in the solicitors’ firm’s interest to do it rather than a disinterested decision by him... makes me even more alarmed.”

That, for staunch upholders, is the correct use of “disinterested”: “Someone who is not involved in a particular situation or not likely to benefit from it and is therefore able to act in a fair ... way.” (Collins again.)

Contrast this description of an Arsenal footballer from The Telegraph’s sports pages: “The most common criticism levelled at Mesut Ozil tends to be that... he can look more than a tad disinterested when the other team have the ball...” As Collins languidly remarks, “some users of English believe that it is not correct to use disinterested with this meaning” [of not being interested].

Staunch upholders insist that a useful distinction is being lost. But is it? Nobody could confuse the meaning of either sentence and the fact that words can mean two different things is one of the joys of English, making puns, wordplays, crossword puzzles possible.

Take this example: “The CEO, who is retiring at 65, is a taciturn individual. Let’s hope the successor is more outgoing.” Contrast with: “The outgoing company secretary talks too much. When she leaves, we are hoping for a replacement who is more shy and retiring.” Here “outgoing” and “retiring” are both synonyms and antonyms.

That’s not to say words cannot be misused. A review of the (very loud) rock band Queens of the Stone Age was headlined: “Big on noisome killer and sparing on the filler”. As this was a five-star review, the headline writer probably made the common mistake of thinking “noisome” is just a swanky word for “noisy”, and didn’t know its proper sense of  “unpleasant” or “foul-smelling”.

The question is where to draw the line. “Enormity” is another word akin to those French faux amis, which don’t quite mean what you think, and is properly used for “the extreme seriousness of something perceived as bad or morally wrong” rather than merely something big. A quick Google will reveal how few writers realise this. Staunch upholders can probably rely on “noisome” for a bit longer, but “enormity” is probably lost to them.

That’s not to support the view that native English speakers simply can’t make mistakes and words just mean what they choose them to mean. A recent review of the Formula 1 world championship compared Lewis Hamilton’s record with Juan Manuel Fangio’s: “And while Fangio’s 24 grand prix wins have been dwarfed by Hamilton’s 71, he competed in a period when seasons were curtailed to seven or eight races, as opposed to today’s 21.”

The season in Fangio’s heyday might have been limited to eight races, but it has since been extended, and was never “curtailed”, which means to “shorten” or “reduce”. That’s simply wrong.

And what to make of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments that his attempt to oust Theresa May is not a “coup”:  “A coup is when you use illegitimate procedures to try and overturn somebody who is in office. This is working through the procedures of the Conservative Party and therefore it is entirely constitutional. Dare I say, coup is the wrong word.”

You dare not. I’m sure many victims of boardroom coups could assure you that while a coup is a sudden seizure of power, these days it isn’t always or necessarily illegal. Again, the meaning has moved on – although perhaps it’s no surprise it has left Mr Rees-Mogg behind.

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