Dear Dr. Boli: This bag of Himalayan pink salt I just bought says, in big letters, “100% NATURALLY PURE.” It also says that it “contains up to 84 minerals and trace elements.” My question is this: Huh? —Sincerely, A Confused Dollar-Store Shopper.
Dear Sir or Madam: Obviously, by the usual laws of English denotation, “Pure” means one thing, and “contains up to 84 minerals and trace elements” means something entirely different. The single word in English that best describes “contains up to 84 minerals and trace elements” is contaminated.
Dr. Boli did some research to make sure he was giving you the correct answer here. Bailey’s Dictionary, for example, defines “pure” as “simple, uncompounded.” Dr. Johnson gives us “Unmingled; not altered by mixtures; mere.” Worcester says “Free from mixture with any thing else.”
But we are standing on the frontiers of lexicography here. It is often true that lexicographers, even ones as recent as Worcester (Dr. Boli consulted the 1860 edition), lag behind the common sense of the people in questions of meaning and usage. As with the word “comprise,” the word “pure” may be coming to mean its opposite. This is a development we should encourage in more words. The more ambiguous our language, the less we can definitely be accused of having said any one thing in particular, and the fewer people we shall offend as a result. Eventually we shall reach the happy state of not being able to communicate at all, and wars will cease at last.