A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Arm-twisting is a means of inducing cooperation through pressure. Words do it too — in the case of words, it is peer pressure that induces cooperation, and the pressure on a word is to express a meaning that the word’s companions make compulsory.
There are different ways of looking at this phenomenon in language. One is called coercion, where the idea is that a word’s meaning is built from its context compositionally and that it doesn’t fully reside in the word itself. Construction grammar takes a similar view: chunks of words, more than words themselves, are chief determiners of meaning. When words are put together in such a way that a mismatch arises between the words and their usual semantic or grammatical interpretations, novel meanings can emerge: words are compelled by the structures they are in to take on a semantic or grammatical aspect that was not formerly a part of their job description. What should dictionaries have to say about this activity?
If you shout "fire" in a crowded theater, you do not need to supply any additional linguistic context for your listeners to disambiguate the handful of meanings of the noun. Most meaningful utterances, however, take place in the context of other words and this is where peer pressure can come into play. When you look at how the meanings of words develop historically, there’s a good argument to be made that coercion and grammatical constructions can both be viewed as bases of polysemy: people use words in novel contexts that may require words to take on a shift — sometimes radical but usually subtle — in conventional meaning. If the new usage catches on, lexicographers will eventually catch up with it, and decide whether a new sense of a word merits documentation. Here are a few examples.
One definition of the verb hiss (from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary) is "to silence or drive away by hissing." You might say, "The performers were hissed off the stage." So hiss, given the required context,takes on a meaning similar to drive, which at its core means "cause motion." Many dictionaries, however, do not record such a meaning, and their editors may reason that there is no need to: hiss only gets this meaning when speakers insert it into a semantic slot that would normally contain another verb: in this case drive.
When followed by a handful of common adjectives — for example, aware, slow, thin, shy, obvious, and honest — the adverb painfully rarely has anything to do with pain and has become somewhat weakened to become a mere intensifying submodifier, meaning "very" or "to an extreme degree." Older dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson’s 1755 work or Noah Webster’s of 1828, do not note this weakened meaning of painfully because it was not yet established. Johnson says painfully means "with great pain or affliction; laboriously, diligently." Webster says (1) "with suffering of body; with affliction, uneasiness or distress of mind. (2) "laboriously; with toil; with laborious effort or diligence." A more modern dictionary, however (e.g., the Oxford Dictionary of English) also gives the meaning "(with reference to something undesirable) exceedingly."
The following bigrams of common collocations of painfully + adjective show how their popularity began to develop in the early 19th century, when writers began to move painfully away from its more literal meanings. All of these collocations have enjoyed steadily increasing use since that time; some might even be considered clichés today.
"Nouning" and "verbing" can be viewed as varieties of coercion or meaning induced by construction: a speaker or writer has only to insert a noun in a slot where syntax requires a verb, or add verbal inflections to a word that was formerly only a noun, and thus is a new grammatical function is put forth. Another means by which this kind of grammatical shift may succeed in English is by the insertion of an article before a noun that is normally a noncount noun: the article forces interpretation of the noun as countable.
You can pull off both of these tricks (nouning and "countifying") at once by inserting an article before a verb, thus converting it to a count noun:
- I love the camaraderie between cyclists at the end of a ride when you stop and have a brew afterward and swap stories.
- Only when that narrative was engaging users did the Obama campaign make the ask, getting them to donate, call or vote.
Many readers may find sentence 1) perfectly acceptable but object to sentence 2). Why? The nouning and countification of brew took place more than 500 years ago. The nouning of ask is just now gaining a foot-hold.
There are three large stakeholders in the enterprise of words and language that have a complicated relationship to these kinds of semantic and grammatical shifts: they are (1) language learners, (2) computers, and (3) dictionaries. Of the three, language learners seem best placed to come to accommodation with sudden linguistic shifts and perhaps even learn to exploit them for their own uses. Learners of a language, whether children or adults, are less likely than fluent native speakers to grasp what is happening in a coercive usage; but human language learners have the faculty of Sprachgefühl, intuitive feeling for language (or you might just say that they are better wired for it) to enable them to make a good guess about the intended meaning when a novel use is put forward. Computers have extreme difficulties in dealing with novel or forced uses of words: most software relies on sense inventories to decide what a word means in context, and sense inventories are never comprehensive enough to include all possible or even common induced-meaning uses of words.
That brings us to dictionaries, the principal repositories of sense inventories. Where should dictionaries stop in documenting the established usages of words, especially the usages that are novel or off-label? The modern approach is statistical and quasi-scientific: lexicographers survey gigantic corpora in order to determine the extent to which new meanings are established, and on that basis, decide whether to include a new sense of a word in a dictionary’s sense inventory. So in effect, dictionaries are always playing catch-up with meaning, and language marches on, carried forward by the ingenuity of its users.