Shake it all up

William Shakespeare – 450 today – has probably had more influence on the English language than anyone else before or since. He’s the man responsible for words like “distasteful” and phrases like “pound of flesh”.

While  many words from his plays retain the same meaning, others have moved on. For instance, Shakespeare used the word “punk” to mean “prostitute”.

This is just one example of how language is a living thing. Words like “selfie” come into our vocabulary, but others become obsolete or end up meaning something completely different.

I vividly remember a lengthy discussion with my late father, also a journalist, about this.  I’d used the word “decimate” to mean “destroy” (I think we were talking about what the opposition had just done to Watford’s defence).

He insisted that decimate meant “to destroy one in ten” – something that Roman leaders would do, apparently, to punish mutinous legions. That was the original meaning, I agreed, but a word means what most people think it means, and not what it used to mean. If you use a word to mean something when your listener thinks it means something else, then as far as I am concerned, you are using it incorrectly.

After all, if you asked 100 people in the street what decimated meant (as long as none of them were my dad or a military historian) I’d bet that they’d all say “destroyed” too.

One interesting question arising out of this is – when does a word actually change meaning? At what point can you no longer be accused of using it incorrectly?

The word “hopefully” is really an adverb - it originally meant “in a hopeful way”. So if you travel hopefully, you are hoping that something good is waiting for you at your destination.  

But today most people use it to mean “I hope” or “it is hoped” eg “Hopefully I will do well in my exams”. This use is so well accepted now that you would be churlish to correct someone.  People might say it is gramatically wrong but I would say it isn’t as its meaning has changed.

Hopefully you agree, but let me know if you’d like to decimate my argument.