Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sweatin' the Small Stuff

Running a bit behind today, but here's a language post to sate my sense of blogging duty. Let us take up the word transpire, a great example of a word that has correct and less-than-correct-but-not-necessarily-entirely-wrong meanings. Dictionary.com does a good job of making the distinction.

Correct and accepted by almost everyone who's not objectively batshit insane:

  • To give off vapor containing waste products, as through animal or plant pores
  • To become known; come to light

Problematic and likely to ruffle the feathers of the strictest of grammarians and etymologists:

  • To come about; happen or occur

* * *

So, why the ruffled feathers? Both of the broadly accepted meanings suggest a passing-through, while the contentious usage as a synonym for occur departs entirely from this notion of a passing-through. And for the meaning-conscious, this departure is bad-bad-bad. Evil almost. It should die. And painfully, at that.

I highlight the difference here, but not necessarily to change your usage. Do whatever you want. You certainly won't be alone if you use the contentious meaning. But know that I'll be there, in the back of the room, smugly thinking to myself:

You think you've just used a high-fallutin' synonym for "occur," but technically you've deployed a highly charged word whose definition is very unstable and, as a result, unclear. And, if you were trying to impress someone with your complex verbiage, there's an increased chance that you've actually accomplished the opposite. But of course, I don't take offense nor do I lower my assessment of your personal worth, which is infinite and unquantifiable, as all human life is beautiful and good. FYI.
So, as I said: do whatever you want.


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