Business Insider

Kathy McIntosh: In language, meanings change along with the times

Kathy McIntosh
Kathy McIntosh

Words and their usage and connotations evolve. Awareness of these changes not only can improve our writing, but also help us sell more and avoid antagonizing potential audiences.

In a column run Oct. 20 in the Idaho Statesman, Charles Krauthammer brought reason to the blazing controversy about changing the name of the Washington Redskins football team. Citing numerous examples of words that originally had no derogatory connotation, Krauthammer reminded us that words don’t stand still.

“What’s at issue,” he noted, “is not high principle but adaptation to a change in linguistic nuance.” He asked if “you want to associate yourself with a word that, for whatever historical reason, carries derogatory connotations.”

Thanks to Mary Morris for bringing the column to my attention.

Another way words evolve is through rebranding, changing a name in the hope of boosting product sales. Prunes have been marketed as dried plums for the past 13 years, when the FDA approved the name change. And kiwifruit was once known as Chinese gooseberry. Sales of both went up when the names were changed.

Other foods have aliases or dual names, such as the hazelnut, also known as a filbert, and chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans. I’ve recently read that filberts and hazelnuts actually grow on two different, but similar trees, but the terms are generally used to describe both nuts.

Reflecting on the evolution of words, Morris lamented the acceptance of the word snuck for sneaked. Sneaked is the traditional past tense and past participle of sneak, but the word snuck originated in the U.S. in the early 20th century and is now used interchangeably with sneaked, and not just in speech or informal writing. Although still cited as jocular or nonstandard by some references, snuck is generally considered an acceptable form these days. If in doubt, stick to sneaked.

Another word in transition is conflate. Conflate’s traditional meaning is to bring together, to fuse or combine into a composite whole. Merriam-Webster has added “confuse” as a second meaning, and the word is now most often used to mean “to confuse” or “muddle together.” It is most frequently seen in political contexts.

A word that I hope is not in transition is clarity. It means (and has always meant) the state or quality of being clear, lucidity, clearness of thought or style. Unfortunately, clarity is all too often absent from today’s writing. A recent Associated Press article on the Cardinals’ win over the Dodgers in the National League Championship series stated: “The glamorous Dodgers, with the second-highest payroll in baseball at $220 million, failed to reach the World Series for the first time since winning it all in 1988.” I took that to mean they have reached the World Series every year since 1988. Actually, they won the World Series in 1988 and have not returned since. How about, “The glamorous Dodgers again failed to reach the World Series, something they’ve tried for since winning it all in 1988.” Perhaps most sports page readers know baseball history better than I, but all readers are owed our best attempt at clarity.

Whether we’re talking fruit, sports or evading detection, it’s a good idea to be aware of the changing meaning of words.