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Language is not a static, lifeless thing: Why we should refrain from frothing at the mouth when words are used incorrectly

If language was static, we would still be flirting at actors before exploding them off the stage with a few well-aimed fiascos, writes Sue de Groot for the Sunday Times

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Accidental DictionaryGroucho Marx said he’d never belong to a club that would have him, but I am pleased to call myself a member of the word-loving league because otherwise I might miss out on treats such as The Accidental Dictionary, which landed on my desk last week through the kind intervention of a fellow pedant.

Paul Anthony Jones, author of The Accidental Dictionary, might also be a pedant, but pedantry is not the point of this book. Subtitled “The remarkable twists and turns of English words”, it is a manifesto containing 100 alphabetical reasons why the more pedantic among us should refrain from frothing at the mouth every time a word is used incorrectly, because half the words we use (or at least the 100 words cited in Jones’s book) once meant something else entirely.

Take “explode”, which is dealt with in Chapter 30. Jones points out that the word we now associate with bombs, certain types of cellphones and other devices not allowed on aircraft has its origins in the Latin verb plaudere, meaning “to clap the hands”. Combined with the prefix ex-, writes Jones, this gave us “a word meaning ‘to deride’, ‘to reject scornfully’ or ‘to jeer a performer from the stage’, which was the original meaning of explode.”

He goes on to track the evolution of the word, how it broadened and became “to drive or push out suddenly, noisily or violently” and thus became associated with explosions.

Jones also examines “fiasco”, which we now know as a big fat mess, an unmitigated disaster or a total catastrophe. I could mention Trump here but I won’t.

In Italian, a fiasco is a bulb-shaped glass bottle, usually wrapped in straw, from which chianti is emptied before a candle is stuck in and the bottle placed on a restaurant table. Actors in Renaissance Italy used fiasco as slang for “make a bottle of”, in other words to forget one’s lines, enter at the wrong moment or in some other way muck up a play.

Jones is too polite to mention that this bottling bears no relation to the colloquial British “bottle it”, meaning to lose one’s courage, which comes more rudely from Cockney rhyming slang. Look it up.

In its journey from a bottle to a calamity, fiasco might have passed through the hands of glass-blowers, who would refashion a clumsy mess into a less noble vessel. There might also have been unruly theatre patrons who threw broken bottles at deficient players instead of simply exploding them with jeers and boos.

Then we have “flirt” which Jones reveals originally meant “sneer”. “Back in the mid-1500s,” he writes, “flirt was being used to denote all kinds of hurried movements”, but the earliest of these was an expression of scornful derision. For the next century, flirt was firmly wedded to the turning up of noses. Only in the mid-1600s, says Jones, did it come over all romantic. He links this to the “flirting” of ladies’ fans, in which these cooling instruments were jiggled to send coded messages to lovers (so much depends on the tilt of a fan).

“By the late 18th century,” writes Jones, “flirt was finally starting to be used as a verb … in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘to make love without serious intentions’.”

If language was a static, lifeless thing, we would still be flirting at actors before exploding them off the stage with a few well-aimed fiascos. There must have been a time during the transition of these words from one state to another when pedants complained about the uses to which they were put. If this is to serve as any sort of lesson, perhaps we should stop complaining when “literally” is used figuratively, allow “endemic” to take the place of epidemic and accept that “gift” is now a verb. But maybe not just yet.

The Accidental Dictionary, by Paul Anthony Jones, is published by Elliott & Thompson.

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