Bryan Garner on Words

Our shifting meanings: Test your knowledge of modern usage

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Bryan Garner

Bryan Garner: As a matter of linguistic epidemiology, if a malapropism becomes common enough, it becomes a nonstandard usage.” Photo by Winn Fuqua Photography

As we all know, language isn’t static: Every aspect of it—grammar, syntax, spelling, pronunciation and meaning —evolves over time. Fortunately, most changes are gradual, even glacial. But changes in the semantic content of words can occur quickly. Think of the new meanings that technology has brought to such words as cloud, drive, friend, monitor, profile, scan, snipe, spam, surf, troll and tweet.

The sources of change are sometimes puzzling. When my young nephew told me recently that my kitchen was “dank,” he was surprised that I wasn’t chuffed. Far from meaning “unpleasantly damp, musty and cold,” the word to him meant “cool” or “nifty.” I was unaware of this new slangy meaning, but he and his sister insisted that all their friends understand the word this way. A little investigating revealed that the new sense derives from marijuana culture: Dank pot is sticky, gooey and potent—hence “really good.” Somehow this sense permeated teenage slang, and by 2017 kids everywhere were using dank to describe things they liked.

Whether this new use of dank will become standard English is debatable. I’m not betting on it: Most slang never becomes elevated to the level of standard. Rather, it tends to be evanescent, rising and falling with the tides of pop culture: Think of such now-dated precursors of dank as the 1960s’ groovy, the 1970s’ boss, or the 1980s’ bad. And if my nephew’s dank did start to creep into print, it would surely cause widespread confusion among many readers.

Like change, and often because of it, confusion is a linguistic constant. Whenever two words sound similar, it’s almost inevitable that some speakers and writers will swap one for the other. If a mistake is considered an outright blunder (corollary misused for correlation, testamentary misused for testimonial, or virulent misused for virile), it’s called a malapropism—after Mrs. Malaprop, a linguistically challenged character in a famous 18th-century play (The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan). Shakespeare, too, invented several such characters, but Mrs. Malaprop became the eponym.

Louisa Lane Drew

Louisa Lan Drew as Mrs. Malaprop in a revival of “The Rivals” in 1895. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

As a matter of linguistic epidemiology, if a malapropism becomes common enough, it becomes a nonstandard usage; if it continues to spread more widely, it can gradually become standard. But this process can take centuries.

Some years ago, I invented a Language-Change Index that allows a charting of these changes. In Stage 1, a new form or meaning emerges among a small minority of the language community—often simply as a mistake. It’s either unknown or widely stigmatized. (They was there!) In Stage 2, it has spread to a significant fraction of the language community but remains nonstandard (one criteria—using the plural form as a singular). In Stage 3, it becomes commonplace even among well-educated people but is still avoided in standard written English (straightlaced as a misspelling of straitlaced). In Stage 4, it becomes virtually universal, even in print, but it still attracts opposition from linguistic stalwarts (the reason is because in place of the reason is that). And in Stage 5, the form or meaning becomes universally acceptable at copy desks everywhere; the only people who oppose it at this point are eccentrics (self-deprecating, which is now standard even though it originated as a mistake for self-depreciating).

Many linguistic mutations never progress beyond Stage 1. They stay in the shadows of the language, emerging now and again, mostly to the annoyance of sticklers. Arguments frequently erupt about words and phrases in Stages 2 and 3. But if a mutation makes it to Stage 4, its long-term progress to Stage 5 is all but certain. It’s just a question of the passage of time, whether decades or just years.

Usage quiz

Quiz time. In each question that follows, one choice is a Stage 2 or Stage 3 misusage that wouldn’t pass muster with a good copy editor. See whether you can recognize the traditionally correct forms.

Some, by the way, might scoff that an “incorrect” choice never causes any confusion, so it shouldn’t matter at all. But that misses the point. Usage isn’t about intelligibility; probably nobody would misunderstand. Good usage is about credibility—inducing people to trust you. It depends on established linguistic custom. That’s all.


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Bryan A. Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of many books on advocacy and legal drafting, is the distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University. His most recent book is Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. 

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