Do you have language usage peeves? Linguistic irritants that you wrinkle your nose at, but that lots of people use? Being a gentleman of taste and refinement, I have a long list of such peeves, but I won’t encumber you with that list; a few examples will suffice.
“I’ll try and fix it” should be “I’ll try to fix it.”
“He’s incredibly fast” should be “He’s very fast”. If something is incredible, you shouldn’t believe it.
“Arrogant” means “taking onto oneself rights and privileges one doesn’t deserve”. Use “vainglorious” or “proud” instead.
There are two hands to this situation. On the one hand, I am quite correct in declaring that these usage abuses sully the language by expanding the definitions of words. “Arrogant”, for example, once had a precise meaning derived from the verb “arrogate”. Nowadays, though, its meaning has expanded to include the notion of “proud” or “conceited”; I once heard it used to mean “stubborn”.
Let me introduce to you a concept that has long assisted my thinking: semantic space. This is an imaginary volume of space spanning the range of human thought. Each word in our semantic space occupies a small volume of that space, representing the range of meanings that it communicates. Thus, the word “arrogate” initially occupied a little sphere of space covering such ideas as an American President exercising powers not granted in the Constitution, or the junior member of a project team dominating a strategy meeting, or a boss presuming to tell his employees how to live their private lives. It was a tight word, precisely communicating a specific notion. But now we are in the process of adding a long lobe of extended semantic volume to what was once a nice sphere. By expanding the meaning of the word to include the concept of vainglory, we have expanded its semantic volume -- and thereby reduced the precision of meaning that it earlier had. This is not a positive development -- as the word’s semantic volume increases, it’s ability to communicate its original meaning is diluted, and users of the language must struggle with longer locutions to express their meanings.
But this is an inevitable and never-ending process. We are all surround in so much linguistic excess that we value any expression that’s fresh and new. We enjoy linguistic innovation, and that impels us to stretch words to apply to meanings outside of their original meaning. We stretch every word to cover more and more semantic volume. Words such as “incredibly”, which communicated the notion of a statement so extreme as to defy belief, are being used as intensifiers to express the notion of a strong statement, not just an unbelievable statement. The word “incredibly” gets watered down to the point where it merely means “very”. Every word we use is continually being subjected to semantic waist-spreading; the words in our language are getting fat and flabby, less and less useful. This is the basis for resentment of such usages. People really are diluting the power of language when they indulge themselves like this.
But there’s a second hand -- “the other hand” -- to consider. Language is constantly in flux, and the dilution of existing words is balanced by the coining of new words. Perhaps someday in the future, when the word “arrogant” is so badly watered down that it’s useless, somebody will coin a new word expressing the concept. Perhaps that word will be the name of some politician who has garnered infamy for extreme arrogance. “That Chris Crawford is really a jones, you know what I mean?” The linguistic community is creative and productive -- every year hundreds of new coinages appear on the scene. Most have their 15 minutes of fame and fade into history, but a few stick, especially those that fill a real need. Sometimes, we import a word from another language to express a concept that no English word can cover. Words like “schadenfreude”, “schwerpunkt”, and “taboo” are good examples of this process. Their value lies in the fact that defining them requires a long phrase in English.
In the end, words don’t mean what the dictionary says they mean: words mean what the majority of speakers use them to mean. The whole English-speaking world is puffing up the word “arrogant” to make it mean things that I know it doesn’t mean. They’re abusing a perfectly good word. But if that’s what people want it to mean, then that’s what it means, regardless of what the Oxford English Dictionary says.