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Do Overused Words Lose Their Meaning? By Jonathon Sturgeon

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.”

Despre Claudiu Degeratu
Expert in securitate nationala, internationala, NATO, UE, aparare si studii strategice

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