Is It Evolution, Or Just Misuse Of The English Language?

April 23, 2012

The history and use of language is, and always will be, incredibly interesting to me. I was deeply submersed as a college English major and continue to follow the evolution of language as a pony at Fast Horse. (In fact, my first Peepshow post EVER was about lexicography and the Oxford English Dictionary’s addition of OMG, BFF, LOL and TMI.)

Photo credit: The New York Times and Leif Parsons

This week, the AP Stylebook announced they would support the modern usage of “hopefully.” I’m not going to lie, I was shocked. One of the first things I learned in my U of M editing class was NEVER to use “hopefully” in its modern context. Ever.

I had to wonder.. am I using words incorrectly because I learned them based on their modern usage?

The answer is yes. So, I’ve pulled together a short list of words I’m using incorrectly or not according to their proper definition. (Just for fun, I’m including a couple of words that I would never use in daily conversation.)

Nonplussed

This is by far one of my favorite words to express unhappiness. But, nonplussed is used to describe a state of perplexity, confusion or bewilderment, not unhappiness. Am I the only one this confuses? My years of math education as a child taught me that “plus” has a positive connotation so one can only assume that nonplussed would be synonymous with unhappiness and negativity. Perhaps, this is where the misuse stems.

Nonplussed has a photo meme.

Merriam-Webster defines nonplus as, “to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, this, or do” (Merriam-Webster).

Urban Dictionary describes nonplussed as, “Often misused as meaning unfazed, but actually means bewildered” (Urban Dictionary).

Alright

Ask my colleague Dave Fransen, I’m the queen of using alright in place of all right, something which has been brought to my attention numerous times. I’ve righted my grammatical wrong but feel like I should address the issue.

Does it make it all right if Roy Lichtenstein uses alright?

Merriam Webster defines alright with a note to see all right. However, the discussion section provides some interesting insight.

The one-word spelling alright appeared some 75 years after all right itself had reappeared from a 400-year-long absence. Since the early 20th century some critics have insisted alright is wrong, but it has its defenders and its users. It is less frequent than all right but remains in common use especially in the journalistic and business publications. It is quite common in fictional dialogue, and is used occasionally in other writing (Merriam-Webster).

Urban Dictionary defines alright as “an alternate spelling of all right.” There also is a side not to further describe the use of the word.

Although sometimes considered improper English, it is a completely logical contraction. The words altogether and already are similar contractions that are widely accepted (Urban Dictionary).

Towards

I know it’s incorrect but I habitually misspell toward and tack on the extra letter. Some may blame laziness or ignorance, but I blame studying abroad in London and adapting to British ways for half a year. (In case you don’t know, towards is the proper spelling across the pond.)

Whelm

Its counterpart, overwhelm, is commonly used in everyday conversation. Whelm is not. Seemingly, whelm and overwhelm don’t have incredibly different definitions – although overwhelm has a much more negative connotation in today’s modern usage. In my mind, whelm is a dead word. Have you ever heard someone use it?

Merriam-Webster defines whelm as a transitive verb meaning, “to overcome in thought or feeling: overwhelm” (Merriam-Webster).

Merriam-Webster defines overwhelm as a transitive verb meaning, “to overpower in thought or feeling” (Merriam Webster).

Gruntled

This fantastic word is rarely used while its counterpart, disgruntled, is commonly used by people to express anger or dissatisfaction. So, why don’t we use gruntled to express happiness? My guess is because the word itself sounds angry and harsh. However, if you’re looking to shock a dull conversation… feel free to word-drop gruntled. I guarantee you’ll be met with a confused, or even disgruntled, look.

Merriam-Webster defines gruntled as, “to put in good humor” (Merriam-Webster).