Do Overused Words Lose Their Meaning?

Three articles have appeared in the last week wondering about the meaningless of certain words. After Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for fiction, Merriam-Webster ran a “Trend Watch” notification about a spike in the use of the word “Kafkaesque,” a literary word used to describe Kang’s novel. In a sidebar, the dictionary offers that “[s]ome argue that ‘Kafkaesque’ is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning,” before instructing “[it] describes anything of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially if there’s a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Note the dictionary’s preference for the word “describes” over “means.” Even Merriam-Webster hesitates in its role as an arbiter of meaning.

“Merriam-Webster is not wrong,” Alison Flood of the Guardian wrote yesterday, though the dictionary went out of its way not to offer a prescription — its “Trend Watch” could neither be right nor wrong. She goes on to list a number of words similar to “Kafkaesque”: literary words — “Orwellian” and “Byronic” — that purportedly lose their meaning with overuse. But after Flood invokes a sense of malpractice in the way these words are used (“Perhaps almost as abused as Kafkaesque is Orwellian”) [my emphasis], she walks it back. “But back to The Vegetarian, and how Kafkaesque it is, whatever that actually means to us.” Whatever that actually means to us. An age-old anxiety is being played out here. Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them? Any person without an agenda knows the answer is “both.”

“I have a confession to make,” Gene Weingarten wrote in the Washington Post last week. “For the last 25 years, in my writing, I have been using the adjectives ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’ interchangeably and without actually knowing what either means.” What follows is a field day of laziness and buffoonery. Weingarten, a humorist, means for his piece to be funny, but its humor flies in the opposite direction. Given ample opportunity to use the words properly, he fails each time. For example, he quotes himself in an older, Pulitzer-winning piece that uses the word “epistemological”:

If a great musician plays great music but no one hears … was he really any good? It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest.

Forgiving the way this passage courts cliché (“the koan about the tree in the forest”), it’s worth pointing out that “epistemological” here doesn’t make sense. He’s talking about the aesthetic value of a piece of unheard music. He could use the words “aesthetic” or “critical,” or even the word “phenomenological,” but his slothful disregard for proper usage prevents him from trying. His excuse is that the words are too “academic,” though he admits to using them for more than two decades. It isn’t that hard: epistemology has to do with “knowing,” and “ontology” has to do with “being.” Who here is knowingly being obscurantist, the “academic” or the blowhard?

I can’t help but find in these pieces a hint of a “harmless” dark populism, one that wants to stick it to the know-it-alls while asserting an everyman expertise. “I know that this word is becoming meaningless” and “I know these words have always been meaningless” come from the same political platform. But it’s worth asking whether a word can be overused. Are words non-renewable resources? Or does a word, when used widely, take on secondary and tertiary meanings?

Usage debates flare on Twitter, where users don’t want their language “policed,” but they also stir discord in “academia,” where linguists and lexicographers have fought about usage for decades. For anyone interested in the subject, it’s worth reading Brian Garner’s famous essay “Making Peace in the Language Wars,” from Garner’s Modern American Usage. There Garner bridges the gap between the “descriptivists,” who privilege everyday speakers of language, and the “prescriptivists,” who argue for rules and authorized definitions. He points out that “descriptivists” exclusively write in prescribed Standard English, and he makes it clear that language and style change, whether “prescriptivists” like it or not. In the end, he goes pragmatic, in both the philosophical and everyday meaning of the word:

The test of good usage has little to do with what endures, although good usage is fairly stable and tends to endure. It has more to do with what works for today’s readership, distracting as few readers as possible. It’s a test of credibility among contemporaries. Good usage reflects how a careful writer of today approaches linguistic questions.

Anyway, the literary interpretation of a book can change over time; oppositely, the prevailing critical stance on a novel or play can outlast several lifetimes. And it can be hazy or inaccurate. Merriam-Webster’s definition of “Kafkaesque” notes the “nightmarish” vibe of the author’s work, but it doesn’t mention that the same works are funny. There is something funny, too, about the bureaucratic confusion underwriting Merriam-Webster’s “Trend Watch.” The idea that a word could lose its meaning because people use it is both funny and politically scary. And so is the idea that a word could mean nothing at all.