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verbicide

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verbicide

C[live] S[taples] Lewis (1898-1963)

Definition:

Literally, "the murder of a word": the deliberate distortion or weakening of a word's meaning.

See also:

Etymology:

Coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) and popularized by English author C.S. Lewis. See Examples and Observations, below.

Examples and Observations:

  • "Let me lay down the law upon the subject. Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide--that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life--are alike forbidden. Manslaughter, which is the meaning of the one, is the same as man's laughter, which is the end of the other."
    (Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858)


  • C.S. Lewis on Verbicide
    "Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for 'very,' tremendous for 'great,' sadism for 'cruelty,' and unthinkable for 'undesirable' were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its 'selling quality.' Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . .

    "It may not . . . be entirely useless to resolve that we ourselves will never commit verbicide. If modern critical usage seems to be initiating a process which might finally make adolescent and contemporary mere synonyms for bad and good--and stranger things have happened--we should banish them from our vocabulary. I am tempted to adapt the couplet we see in some parks--
    Let no one say, and say it to your shame,
    That there was meaning here before you came."
    (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960)


  • Verbicide and Swearing
    "[Verbicide] describes a semantic trend, widely apparent in the history of swearing, whereby words that originally had great emotive force and impact have their power eroded through constant repetition and indiscriminate use. . . . The trend applies to virtually all categories of swearing, religious, genital, copulatory, and excretory. Examples abound, not just in swearing, but in words which previously had some religious sense, such as awful, ghastly, hellish, or dismal, as well as positives such as divine, heavenly, paradise, and miracle. George Santayana's succinct observation 'Oaths are the fossils of piety' (1900, 148) sums up the history of this semantic area."
    (Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing. M.E. Sharpe, 2006)
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