Monday, July 14, 2008

Enhance my bitch up

So it's to the great amusement of the office that I crusade against the misuse of "enhance". I say "crusade", but what I mean is that it is one of the words I routinely strike out and replace with a more suitable word.

It's a losing battle, of course, so why bother fighting it? And isn't it odd that I should care, when I am a descriptivist? Surely, if everyone uses "enhance" to mean "increase" or "improve", that's fine with me?

Words have meanings that shift. We all know that. Absent an Academie to fix their meanings (and even with one, as French pedants often bemoan), words will mean whatever we wish them to. Effectively, meaning is a tyranny of the majority: if most of us think "fond" means "enamoured of", rather than "a bit crazy", then that's what it means; if we think "nice" means "agreeable", rather than "fine" or "narrow", then that's what it means. This is not, of course, a random process. There are "gatekeepers" who fight meaning change, "meaning issuers" who create new meanings (or new words) and others who have a great deal of influence. The chief subs of newspapers write style guides that govern their rags, and their personal choices gain weight by repetition on every page of the papers that employ them, sometimes long after they have left/been sacked/died (and some more so than others because they are aped by others: the Economist style guide, for instance, or here in Australia, Wiley's Style Guide).

Descriptivists do not mind meaning shift in itself. After all, we accept that usage rules over prescription. Language is after all a tool, not a monument. Its value is in its use, not as a thing of beauty to be left on a pedestal and admired. But that doesn't mean that we necessarily like it.

The reason is simple. Words have what you might call a "semantic field". This is a conceptual space that represents everything that word means. Some words--"set" is the archetypal example in English--have very wide semantic fields. You could argue that a word that means so many different things actually has a constellation of semantic fields, which overlap only somewhat. That seems a reasonable view. Other words have very narrow semantic fields. "Angioplasty" only means one thing (although it actually describes a whole set of angioplasties, they all have a common feature).

Arguably, "angioplasty" is a more powerful word than "set". It is so much more precise. We consider English a rich language because it allows us to be precise: we can say almost exactly what we mean and be understood closely because we have many words that we could have used, but chose those with the meanings we intended. Few other words even border on "angioplasty"'s semantic field. There are other "plasty"'s but they are not the same kind of thing. There are other ways to say the same thing, but not in one word.

"Set" by way of contrast overlaps with many other words, duplicating their meanings, sharing spaces with many.

This is not a problem. Languages evolve homophones, and words take on new meanings. This too is part of their richness even: having a choice for more general words is useful, particularly for the stylist.

But what does create a problem is the abandonment of a semantic space. "Enhance" meant something quite specific (and when I use it, it still does): it means to increase or improve in terms of a quality. In other words, if you "enhance" something, you might magnify it or change the type of thing that it is; if you improve it, you change its nature, rather than simply making it better; if you increase it, you don't just make more of it, the more is something different. It's hard to explain what it means precisely, because, precisely, "enhance" means it!

Using it as a synonym for "increase" or "improve" simply destroys the semantic space it occupied. There is no longer a word for what "enhance" meant.

Well, so what? In a hundred years, the former meaning of "enhance" will reside in history's dustbin, alongside those of "fond" and "nice". Yeah, true, but I write now, and edit now, and preserving the sharpness of my tools is part of my task.

And, above and beyond that consideration, language is ground down into a grey mass if jargon goes unchallenged. Everything is "enhanced", "leveraged", "assisted" into oblivion. I have edited stuff that literally means nothing. People are employed to communicate precisely nothing. It's particularly horrible here in Australia, where a sort of "educated speak" has a grip on just about everyone who has ever been to university. Their textbooks are written in turgid, meaningless jargon, and they proceed to write it too. Writing in "educated speak" is a simulation of being educated: it's how the educated demonstrate that they have an education.


At 3:23 am, Anonymous $Zero said...

Writing in "educated speak" is a simulation of being educated: it's how the educated demonstrate that they have an education.

that's why i personally make it a point to write in "$Zero speak".


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