Thursday, 28 October 2010

Catachresis, innit?

We old fogeys love to drone on about abuse of the English language. Absolute nonsense of course because the English language has been changing every day since the Normans arrived in 1066, and this constant expansion and change of usage has made English the most expressive language in the world.

All the same, we old fogeys don't like our language to be abused, as I was reminded when I read about the recent review of the Baby P. case in which a child died as a result of "abuse". When I was a lad, abuse was what fish-wives did to each other, with a lot of shouting and swearing. It had nothing to do with beating babies to death. It was nothing to do with sex either, although I do recall there was a thing called self-abuse, which made you go blind. My Mum always used to get cross if she heard people in the street 'effing and blinding' but I'm pretty sure that was something different. As I say, language is a funny thing, but ours was a funny street, so funny things happened. Nowadays though it seems you can abuse anything, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes ...What would you have to do with a cigarette to abuse it? And don't mention Mars Bars.

My dictionary says 'abuse' means 'to make a bad use of'. I suppose you could say self-abuse would come under that heading, but I don't think we could reasonably describe the death of Baby P as 'making a bad use of a baby'.

I was intrigued to note that catachresis, misapplication of a word, is also defined as 'abuse of the language', which is where we came in. I find that catachresis happens all the time nowadays, usually due to a combination of my senility and my ignorance.

It happens to young people too, like the young man who set fire to his sister. He'd confused arson with incest. The Incendiary Magistrate who dealt with the case remaindered him in custard and asked for a psephologist's report. To be fair, he was Chinese, so he knew it was something to do with an election.

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