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Concerning Developments

c5293830c1eebb26389a5f5edb715a7be7120556Not too long ago in this winter of discontent, my Facebook friend David Edelstein posted this status update:

This was in The New York Times.

“New York City public schools are open—to the chagrin of many parents—but field trips are canceled.”

Ben and others who care, when did “chagrin” come to mean annoyance, irritation, displeasure? It means embarrassment. It’s another GREAT word I fear we can’t use anymore because people think it means what it doesn’t. This does NOT fill me with chagrin. It makes me batshit crazy.

Since I was named, I hastened to answer David’s question, as follows: “It came to mean that no later than 1656, which is the first Oxford English Dictionary citation for chagrin defined it as ‘Acute vexation, annoyance, or mortification, arising from disappointment, thwarting, or failure.’ A subsequent example can be seen in a 1677 letter from  William Temple:  ‘His illness … derived, perhaps, from the Fatigue and Chagrin of his Business.’”

Not surprisingly, my pedantic mini-essay was ignored, and David’s more sympathetic friends rushed in to complain about the widespread erroneous use of ironic, bemused,  anxious, and other words. One gentleman had this to say:

What’s even worse is that when you point out the incorrect use of words or sentences that come off as misleading or are flat-out wrong, you get more and more people in this wonderful Internet and social-media age of ours who complain that you are nitpicking and it’s no big deal. Unfortunately, many of these [sic] who are dismissive of us who cling to the proper use of language and the importance of facts belong to the newer generation of “journalists.”

Right, it’s so frustrating when you try and to be helpful to people by informing them of all the mistakes they just made, and they act all offended.

The exchange reminded me of a couple of words with increasingly popular newish meanings, both mentioned in a piece by the syndicated columnist The Word Guy (TWG):

A network-news correspondent recently described a medical issue that has led doctors and researchers to a “worrying conclusion.” Now, I’ve never seen a conclusion worry. I’m wondering whether it knits its brow, rubs its head, and grits its teeth.

More and more people are using “worrying” not to mean “fretting” (“a worrying mom”) but “causing fretting” (“a worrying event”). “Worrying” joins other participles that have recently flipped in meaning, e.g., “these problems are very concerning.”… Frankly, I’m worrying about these worrying trends.

I have the same impression as TWG that these words are on the rise as adjectives. And, indeed, Google News searches for each pull up examples on the first screen:

  • “The Mystery of Andros Townsend’s Slump Is Worrying for England and Spurs” (headline from Bleacher Report)
  • “In any of those situations, it’s very concerning. Up until we get all of the facts, we will let the process run its course.”—General Manager of the Baltimore Ravens Ozzie Newsome, on the arrest of the team’s player Ray Rice (ESPN.com)

To my mind, the conventionally “correct” alternative to both would be either troubling or worrisome. Google Ngram Viewer (showing the relative frequency of each term in printed English sources) gives some surprising results. (I put the word very in front of each word so as to get only adjectival uses.)

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I was struck by the relatively recent ascendance of troubling and worrisome, but the big surprise was the relatively long tail of worrying. Ngram Viewer allows you to search separately in American and British books, and it turns out that the word has been popular across the pond for a considerably longer time than in the United States:

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 7.45.07 PM

As previously seen, I am that guy who looks things up in the OED, and when I did, I discovered, not surprisingly, that both words TWG found problematic have been used as adjectives for a long time. We find worrying (as well as figurative literally!) in Frederick Reynolds’s Life & Times (1826), “Your whole conduct is literally worrying and annoying in the extreme,” and concerning in Coleridge’s Literary Remains (1839): “To utter all my meditations on this most concerning point!”

Beyond historical precedent, TWG’s objections are specious. If he thought about it for a minute, he would realize that he had indeed seen a conclusion worry, e.g., “The researcher’s conclusion worried his collaborators.” Indeed, it is customary, when a person, situation, or thing emotionally verbs someone, to describe that person, situation, or thing as verbing. Think of perplexing, frightening, amusing, touching, exciting, etc. The only counter-examples that come immediately to mind are scary and awesome.

The whole small kerfuffle has caused me to reflect on the reasons that are customarily given for objecting to particular usages. I list them in order of merit, from least to most.

1. It’s wrong!

As in the examples above, a quick look at the OED or Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage usually reveals that the “incorrect” meaning has a long pedigree. And even if it doesn’t, the new meaning will surely be accepted eventually. That’s the way the language works. I always think of my mother, whose pet peeve was that people said graduated from a college instead of was graduated from. Now, people object to graduated college. What do they want instead? That’s right, the now respectable and standard graduated from.  (This is the case in meanings that change by degree. I acknowledge that sometimes a usage really is wrong, such as nonplused to mean not bothered. But who knows? Maybe some day that will be accepted.)

2. Ambiguity

Almost never actually a problem. In the rare cases that it is, the listener or reader can figure out the meaning by the next sentence. They used to haul this out on hopefully, and a lot of good that did.

3. Old meanings lost

David Edelstein wants chagrin to mean what he feels it’s always meant, and I want the same thing for disinterested, presently, and aggravate. And we’d probably agree that it’s too bad that a whole range of meanings of the verb worry are fading. (The varied usefulness of that word is probably what led to the delayed arrival of worrying the adjective, just as the prominence of concerning in the sense of “having to do with” delayed that new meaning.) Next time I see him, I’ll buy him an Old Fashioned, and we can drown our sorrows.

4. I don’t like it!

I’m in total sympathy with this one. I wouldn’t use concerning as an adjective, literally as an intensifier, or disinterested to mean “uninterested.” When I read a writer who does, or is prone to clichés or wordiness or imprecision, I think less of that writer. On the other side of the coin, David will use chagrin to suggest embarrassment, and it will make his prose that much richer.

But to “point out the incorrect use of words or sentence” by someone who is not your child, your student, or your employee? That’s just wrong, precisely as it would be to point out that person’s cliches, etc. Or, rather, I don’t like it.

 

 

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