Arnold Zwickly produces two rants after my own heart. First:
Why are people so incompetent at finding e-addresses and web addresses? The hypothesis I’ve developed is that the InterWeb—the conglomeration of the Internet and the World Wide Web—makes people lazy and stupid. Here’s this amazing resource, which allows people to track down all sorts of arcane information within (at most) minutes, yet the users have come to expect that sites will be designed to offer them a single-click route to whatever they want. That’s just lazy. And they seem to have lost the ability to search things out for themselves. The InterWeb has made them stupid.
But, in a subsequent parenthesis, he backs off a bit. Give ’em hell, Arnold! Contrariwise, but making the same point: earlier this week I watched a training video (basically a spoken narration over screenshots of a developer writing code) that involved a side trip to a popular download site. We watched the coder-narrator type the name of the download site into a search box and then click through the search results. Oy vey! Bookmarks and URLs are your friends, people!
Next, Zwickly talks more moderately about the bleed-through of technical language into general use, and the repurposing of common words like normal and mass for technical purposes. He uses a favorite bête noire of mine as an example:
The fact is that ordinary language is pressed into service in a number of ways to provide technical vocabulary, which then has a very specialized meaning in certain contexts, and at the same time technical vocabulary “leaks out” into ordinary language. People get the general drift of the technical vocabulary, but (usually not knowing either the etymology OR the context of its technical use) do their best to interpret what they hear.
And they get a lot of it wrong, from the point of view of people in the technical fields. Epicenter obviously refers to a location (of an earthquake)—to, in some sense, the central point where the earthquake took place. Besides center, there’s an extra element epi-, which clearly must contribute something. So the epi- adds extra stuff, probably something emphatic: the epicenter is, people reason, the EXACT center. (Technically, it’s the location on the earth’s surface OVER the place where the earthquake event happened, underground.) Now, getting all enraged about the common-language use of epicenter for the central point of an event—it seems to be standard now—is just as silly as getting all enraged about the common-language use of vegetables to refer to tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplants, etc., all of which are technically fruits in one scheme of biological terminology.
I take his point, that it’s a question of degree. I don’t get bent about the proper use of fruit the way my agronomist ex probably does, but I haven’t given up on epicenter yet. When epi- changes its meaning from “upon” to “exactly,” something is lost: the ability to make sense of a related word like epidermis (“the layer above the dermis”) or epidemic (“a scourge upon the people”).
Tom Stoppard’s Henry says in Scene 5 of The Real Thing:
[Words are] innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so that if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more…. [Words] deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.