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A few posts ago, I was talking about the sentential-modifier meaning of hopefully, or in non-linguist speak, hopefully in the sentence:

(1) Hopefully I’ll be able to escape from the dungeon this afternoon.

This is not the original meaning of hopefully, which originally meant “in a hopeful manner”. Although it seems that the original meaning has lost prominence in recent years (and has almost completely fallen out of at least my lexicon), it’s still in use:

(2) “‘A whip isn’t a weapon,’ he replied hopefully.”

But as soon as you have the perception that a new meaning is edging the old one out, prescriptivists see it as a battleground for the language, and lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, crying out for someone to aid them in their quest to return the word to its original, unsullied state. And you know what? On its face, that might seem like a reasonable stance; after all, we don’t want to open the floodgates and allow any word to mean anything, right? At that point it seems it’s a slippery slope to the Humpty Dumpty position on language, named for the following exchange in “Through the Looking-Glass”:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

But this slope is not nearly as slippery as prescriptivists would have you believe. There is a world of difference between Humpty’s singular declaration that glory means “a nice knock-down argument” and the acknowledgment that a meaning that has been in common usage for almost 80 years (sentential hopefully) is a proper meaning of the word at this point. Maybe you don’t believe me, or still don’t feel entirely comfortable with new meanings. I wouldn’t blame you; this is a commonly-held belief known as the etymological fallacy.

So let’s look at some examples of words whose common and well-accepted meanings were really quite different from their original meanings. None of these, as far as I’m aware, are controversial meanings. They all represent substantial changes from their original meanings. And the English language has not fallen into whateverism as a result. Keep these in mind the next time you’re about to object to a newer usage just because it’s new, whether it be hopefully, anxious, nauseous, or something else entirely. All the definitions are based on the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, online version (http://www.oed.com). And many thanks to the commenters on the earlier post, who offered suggestions for some of the best words below.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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