23 May, 2006

Syntax deductible

Words are always changing their meaning, it's one of the motors of cultural history. But recently some words seem to have altered their sense in a manner that doesn't seem to be motoring anywhere except backwards. Or else into a cul-de-sac.

A couple of examples have been rattling round my head for the past few weeks. One is the word 'random', which appears to have shed its proper meaning of being haphazard or lacking any definite plan or prearranged order, and is now used to refer to anything odd, offbeat or otherwise unexpected.

"Wow, that is totally random," someone will shout where I work, but it's not because they are expressing delight about an unpredicted sequence of numbers, but simply because they've received a particularly zany piece of spam on their email. "I had a phone call that was just so random," someone else will say, wrongly, because the call wasn't from a random stranger but a known colleague on a topic they know everything about.

I first noticed this trend in Liverpool, but it's far more prevalent in London, gripping even the highest of the lowliest middle management pen-pusher.

The other example, however, is far more objectionable. Referring to the need to make the website for which I work ultra-responsive and quick off the mark, various people have taken to stressing the importance of being 'reactionary'. "We need the site to be more reactionary," they cry. What, in the sense of reflecting conservative, right-wing and illiberal views? Because that's what reactionary means.

Of course what they mean and what they should be saying is that they want the site to be more reactive. But nobody picks them up on their mistake (and it's not my place to do so), and not one of them seems aware of their syntactical slip-up.

Is this sort of confusion and jumbling of thought and expression a good or bad thing? It has to be the latter, because in both these instances there isn't the need to create new words or alter meanings of existing words to convey the sentiments which the practioner seeks to express.

Unlike a genuinely new word, like, say, 'weekend', which emerged into common usage during the 19th century when the working week shifted from being seven days non-stop to five days on, two days off, there are already plenty of words to cover the notions to which the above examples refer. 'Reactionary' doesn't need to replace 'reactive'; 'random' shouldn't replace 'weird' or 'bizarre' or 'unexpected'. It's not invention or origination, it's laziness and simple error. Yet it appears to be sweeping the nation. Well, two ends of it. And we need to be reactive, not reactionary, in trying to stop it.


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