On sentiment and word usage.


I visit dictionary websites regularly. I play the games they put up (you gonna add more words to that building one sometime?) and read their articles (you'd think the people who set those standards would know how to spellcheck). I came across one piece that argued along the lines of: the change in or emergence of words is determined by usage, not sentiment. I argue that there is no separation of word usage from sentiment, and rank the contrary position alongside the implication that a space made narrow by a knee-high shelf is more trouble for a short person than a wide one.

On the connection between usage and sentiment, here are a few examples of words that come to mind, ranging from antiquity to the present day:

Machiavellian, a term used to describe one who believes that the end justifies the means, is from an Italian named Niccolo Machiavelli. His most well known book (The Prince is a great bedtime read: one chapter and you're out cold) was written in the time of the Medici, a family who had a monopoly on power through trade, finance, military, religion (read up on their popes and try that contraception joke again). The Medici were also influencers of public opinion, and I find it unlikely that they didn't use that influence to turn this man's name into a byword for a ('their' might be more accurate) method of rule that was dubious, if not outright malevolent. It's difficult to argue that there was no sentiment in that act.

Coventrated is a translation of a German term that was used after the bombing of a town in Britain during World War II. The town's destruction was such that German media at the time used it to encourage and applaud similar acts. (As in "Way to go, guys! You really coventrated that place!") It's difficult to argue that their setting this attack as an example meant to inspire their troops is an act that lacks sentiment.

Hangry, a combination of the words "hungry" and "angry," is a modern term used for a foul mood brought on by hunger, and has been popularized by and disseminated through social media and TV ads. As I've said before, I actually like this term. Since this term is a relatively recent one in my lexicon, its use before I encountered it must have stemmed from more than its convenience and accuracy, considering other similarly-constructed terms haven't. Who doesn't like convenience and accuracy? (Oh, wait, look. "Like." Sentiment.)

I could go further. I could find examples of racial or gender-based or otherwise discriminatory terms, of words that once were innocent made malicious by sentiment rather than by origin. I've witnessed an instance where a new arrival to the States was cautioned to use her local dialect's term for the color black rather than the Spanish loanword for the same color because of the highly charged sentiment of a related and similar-sounding slur.

If you're looking for a more pleasant example of sentiment determining usage, how about the word 'gentleman?' Early uses of the word referred to a man who owned land and was in a position of authority (related to the word gentry). It was a title, a word that referred to a person with people under his watch (not as in Breitling) whether he had the demeanor and looks of a young Henry VIII (party boy who everyone wanted to hang out with) or an old Henry VIII (off with their heads). Later, it came to mean a man with polished manners and appearance (this time, yes, Breitling). Those manners and looks may have been expected of those landowning men; but later, the term used for those men was attributed to men of any caste who displayed such appealing (hey, a sentiment word!) characteristics. (I paraphrased this information from yet another dictionary website article. Not often I see someone provide the counter-argument to their own writers.)

I conclude that the initial argument, the one that argues for a split between usage and sentiment, is itself based on sentiment rather than evidence. Not that holding a position based on sentiment is a new thing to do, but coming from someone who's (not whose) part of an organization that collects and standardizes examples of language, that argument is misinformation that is more likely to spread considering the position of that organization as an authority on the topic. And - here's one more sentiment - that's what ticks me off.

(Edited to add - I have to laugh. There's a new article I just read on the phrase "all the feels." And to add - and the word "bodega!" Sentiment separate from word usage? Nope.)

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