Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jacques Barzun on the evolution of language

Many professional writers admire historian Jacques Barzun (pictured) for his books Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers and On Writing, Editing, and Publishing. In the latter book, he includes this warning:

“There is no getting around it: meaning implies convention, and the discovery that meanings change does not alter the fact that when convention is broken, misunderstanding and chaos are close at hand. True, the vagaries of those who pervert good words to careless misuse seem more often ludicrous than harmful. This might give us comfort if language, like a great maw, could digest anything and dispose of it in time. But language is not a kind of ostrich. Language is alive only by a metaphor drawn from the life of its users. Hence every defect in the language is a defect in somebody.”

The Takeaway: Get in the habit of reading this warning from time to time. I keep a copy of it on my “Why It Matters” page.

Mr. Barzun turned 104 yesterday.

See disclaimer.

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