The TV newsreader said that the burglars snuck into the building after midnight. I thought how my grade school teacher Miss Dahlberg hated snuck. It was not as high on her antipathy list as ain’t, but it was close. Snuck, she preached, was slang. All who used it betrayed their lack of education. It was uncouth; inelegant. “Sneaked, sneaked, sneaked,” she exhorted.
But in all circles that I encounter today, spoken and written, it is largely snuck. A dictionary’s note says that snuck is now used by people of all educational levels, and while snuck may once have been regarded as “nonstandard, . . . it can no longer be regarded so.”
Language changes. Even so, I try, perhaps in deference to that teacher to say sneaked. But why? I actually find it mildly difficult to enunciate. My tongue has to do a dance between the “k” and “d” that I think makes my pronunciation odd. Snuck is easier to say, and since both the meaning of snuck and sneaked is clear, how can the use of either be sneered at?
Why stick to the traditional grammatical rules if the meaning is clear? Does it really matter if we say: “He is different from a pedant” or “He is different than a pedant”?
Language, however, does not always change to remove artificial distinctions. It adds newly needed words and definitions. Many of the common words we use when discussing computers, for example, did not exist a century ago. Of course, these are necessary words, and the lexicon should increase. But the definitions for existing words also change even when there is no apparent need for the change, and oft times the new meanings do not bring greater clarity. Sometimes they only create redundancies or even contradictions.
So, for example, precipitate means to bring about suddenly. (I think of those high school chemistry experiments where the beaker was filled with a liquid holding something in suspension. A chemical was added and almost instantly solid particles floated to the bottom. The precipitate appeared precipitately.) Precipitous referred to a precipice and meant something extremely steep, but over time precipitous got confused with precipitate, and now precipitous not only refers to steepness, it also means precipitate. This new definition for precipitous added nothing useful to the language, but nothing seems lost from the language by it. And my guess is that the context almost always makes clear which definition of precipitous is meant.
Sometimes, however, a definition is added to a word that is inconsistent with an existing definition. Presently once meant only “in the near future, soon.” Presently now, however, means “now.” These definitions are inconsistent. What is soon is not now, but the two usages are hard to confuse because the tenses that accompany the word make clear presently’s meaning. “He will be here presently” can’t mean now. “He is presently here” can’t mean soon. (Although presently can and should be dropped from that second sentence because the sentence’s meaning stays the same without it.)
But sometimes a new meaning gets added to a word that can cause confusion. Verbal once only meant “consisting of words.” Verbal now also means spoken and not written. A written statement is thus simultaneously not verbal and verbal. Most often the intended meaning is no doubt gleaned from the context, but verbal meaning oral adds nothing to the language and sometimes does cause confusion. Not every added definition is an advance or harmless. A valuable linguistic distinction has been lost now that verbal also means oral.
Do you have new definitions of old words that you would like to see disappear?