Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Strict rules of idiolectal word usage

Mark Liberman at Language Log comments on "snoots" and their propensity to make up words at will. He makes a good point, I think:

I've noticed over the years that snoots often like to make up words, and I've wondered why people who value traditional usage so highly are also so open to lexical innovation. The paradox evaporated when I realized that the snootish impulse is not a defense of the community's traditions, it's an assertion of linguistic ego. And what could be more egocentric than inventing new words? ... Snoots don't check lexicographic and grammatical facts because their complaints are about subjective pain, not about objective facts of usage. Though they masquerade as defense of social norms, such screeds are really the howls of a wounded self, demanding primacy.

I've noticed in myself a tendency to "make up" rules of usage of certain words based on how I myself perceive the distribution of these words and use them myself.

Exhibit 1: indexes/indices

I only use "indexes" when referring to the sorts of things who find at the backs of books, and "indices" with stocks and in mathematics i.e. "raising to the power of". So I've carved up the singular "index" into several meanings and strictly assigned for each meaning a certain plural, although I expect (I've no data on this whatsoever) that most people would use them interchangeably or just stick to a certain one depending on their idiolect. To me, it's anathema to say "there are four indices in the Lord of the Rings trilogy" - yuck! I mean, bluck!

Exhibit 2: dubious/doubtful

I myself have very strict rules about how to use these two words, but I know for sure that my views on this aren't shared by the majority - of Americans, at least. I would say, "I'm doubtful of his claims", NEVER "I'm dubious about his claims" - because dubious to me has a negative connotation and means something like shady in "a shady character". So "I'm dubious about his claims" first of all makes no sense because dubious can't subcategorize for any PPs or anything, and second of all seems to be saying, "I'm a shady character." I remember first encountering dubious in the sense of my "doubtful" during a linguistics class and I nearly laughed out loud at the professor for calling himself that. But since then I've heard many Americans use dubious in that way and while I may smile inwardly, I know now what they mean.


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