Early in my career as an English teacher, the All in the Family TV show premiered and became a huge hit. In an idle moment one day I looked up “dingbat” – Archie Bunker’s endearing term for his muddle-headed wife – in the dictionary. I was astonished to learn that a dingbat was a printer’s ornament. Really?
Fast forward to 2011, when I published my book Gretel’s Story: Finding the Way Home and used a decorative dingbat at the beginning of every chapter:
Fast-forward again, to 2016: I just looked up dingbat in the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and found that “silly person” was the first definition. “Printer’s ornament” has dropped to definition #4.
Deploring this kind of change is about as futile as shaking your fist at the sky because a sudden thunderstorm has disrupted your plans to go swimming. Language changes. That’s a fact of life. Get over it!
But now I’m going to argue against myself. Sometimes we need to fight – mightily – against those changes, forestalling them as long as we can. I’m talking about the danger of losing useful words from our language.
Here are four words that – count on it – won’t be around much longer:
disinterested infer unique comprise
I don’t mean that people are going to stop using them. What I’m talking about is the loss of their special meanings.
- Disinterested is not the same as uninterested – but more and more people are using the words as synonyms. Disinterested means “impartial.” You would want a disinterested judge if you went to court to settle a dispute.
“Interest” in this context means “involvement,” as in “She has an interest in that software business.” When we use disinterested to mean “not interested” or “not caring,” we’re losing a useful word from our language.
- Similarly infer does not mean “imply.” Infer means “deduce.” But those two words are gradually acquiring the same meaning – and there goes another useful word. (Here’s an example of how to use infer correctly: When Carole came to work without her wedding ring, I inferred that she and Joe had split up.)
- Unique is another word we’re probably going to lose. Unique does not mean “unusual.” Unique means “one-of-a-kind.” My fingerprints (and yours) are unique – but they’re not unusual. (Well, I just looked at mine, and they’re pretty ordinary – I can’t vouch for yours.)
Many people say “very unique” when they mean “very unusual.” You can’t have “very unique” fingerprints or snowflakes! They’re either one-of-a-kind or they’re not. (In the same way, you can’t be “very pregnant” or “very dead.” You either are or you’re not.)
- Today’s final word is comprise, which does not mean “compose,” even though it’s often used that way. Comprise means “include.” Here’s an example: The committee comprised two residents from each floor. If you say “is comprised of,” we’ve lost another useful word from our language.
Let’s keep these wonderful words going as long as we can, ok?