We had quite a conversation about word drift and the curious terminology it produces. (It is still going on, in fact, and since this article was prepared some hours before it was scheduled for publication, it may not mention the most recent comments. That is not meant as a slight; it is only an artifact of our scheduling system here at the Magazine.) Some of us very sensibly pulled down our Greek lexicons(1), since pillaging the learned languages has always been recognized as a legitimate way to extend our own vocabulary. You could, of course, read the comments themselves and skip this summary, but that would mean that Dr. Boli would have to think of something else to write about today.

“The Shadow” suggested a few terms derived from the verb παρασῦρω, which seems like a perfect choice, since Dr. Boli’s 1858 edition of Pickering’s lexicon(2) defines it as meaning “to draw wrong or awry; to pervert.” “Parasyronym” sounds appropriately fussy and pedantic, with a strong savor of I-know-better-than-you.

“James the Lesser” suggests “periplex” for “a wandering word,” which is a simple and memorable term that has the attractive feature of ending in an X. Marketers know how valuable it is to place an X in a prominent position in a name. “Belfry Bat” suggested “Dissemia” or “dissemiosis” for the process, and “dissemiot” for the result. We could then found a whole literature and science of dissemiotics, and it would doubtless not be long before endowed professorships in the discipline were available.

Bill Clendineng suggests “word accretion,” which sounds like a good term for that subset of usages where a word comes to have so many meanings that it ends up meaningless. “Comprise” is a good example, which has come to mean both “contain” and “be contained”—the original meaning and its opposite.

“DmL” writes, “I like antinym because it approaches being one itself. Summanym I like because it rolls off the tongue and mixes roots.” Later, the same correspondent suggested “mootaphor,” which is so much fun to say that one can hardly keep from walking down the street repeating it over and over like Zippy the Pinhead. (As this article was going to press, “mikeski” suggested, “I think that describes this drift effect on a phrase, instead of on a single word.) “Mary” suggested “syncretion.” “Not least because it doesn’t quite mean what it ought.”

Readers also gave us many examples of these drifted terms. “Mary” pointed out that all forms of vinyl recording are “LPs,” even when they are singles. (This provoked a short rant from Dr. Boli on the many terms in recording technology that have drifted.) She also mentioned “floppy disk” for a disk that plainly does not flop—which became official terminology in the computer business, where 3½-inch removable media are called “floppies.” (And did you notice that little “½”? In Unicode, that is called a “vulgar fraction,” which suggests a curious drift of the word “vulgar” back to its root sense of “used by ordinary people.”) Perhaps there ought to be a separate term for these terms when they have become standard—“floppy” for a rigid medium, for example, or “album” for a collection of tracks on one disk rather than a collection of records in a bound book of sleeves. “Camera,” as “The Shadow” pointed out, is an example of this class of words: it originally meant “chamber” or “room,” but anyone who purchased furniture and draperies for a modern digital camera would be regarded as an eccentric. “Meme,” mentioned by “Belfry Bat,” may soon be added to this list: it is rapidly restricting itself to the meaning “picture with superimposed joke caption in bold capitals.”

“The Shadow” observed yet another class of terms: words that used to refer to people, but now refer to machines. This seems like a legitimate adaptation of terminology, since the term describes the function, and whether that function is performed by a human being, a mechanical device, or a digital computer need not affect the term.

“Belfry Bat” pointed out the numerous terms in the sciences that are misappropriated by pseudointellectual writers. Dr. Boli would add a counterphenomenon, in which scientists and engineers adopt a term for a specialized purpose, and then tell ordinary speakers that they are using it wrong because they use it in the original sense. A good example of this would be “chemical,” which scientists use to mean any element or compound or alloy, so that water is a “chemical”; and then laugh at the ignorance of the general public, who use the term to mean “made by chemistry,” as opposed to occurring naturally. But the definition “made by chemistry” comes from Dr. Johnson. Laugh at him, will you?

Finally, D. Smolken mentions a particularly interesting Jamaican drift, where “deejay” has come to mean “vocalist.” Dr. Boli would point out an analogous drift in American popular culture, where through a similar series of intermediate stages “MC” has evolved to mean “rapper.”

Dr. Boli will not attempt to select from among the alternative terms proposed by his correspondents. But here is an experiment you might try: launch any one of these terms into the billowing waves of the social media, and see how long it takes to drift into meaning something related but different.



  1. Richard A says:

    Still annoyed by the meaning drift of “begs the question”.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      It seems that nothing can be done about it. A decade ago, it still might have been possible to stop the drift, but just in the past few years it has become the one phrase without which news commentators cannot function. (And although it would be good for the world in general, objections would be raised if we simply prohibited news commentators from functioning.) At this point differentiation is our only option; philosophers will have to go back to saying petitio principii. They should continue to use proper English pronunciation when they say it, so as to give the ignorant masses who remember hearing something about the revived classical pronunciation a chance to tell them they are pronouncing it wrong, thus allowing both parties to feel smug at the same time, which is what Aristotle defines as a win-win.

  2. I learned about this phenomenon of “word drift” under the category of “semantic drift” – if they are in fact the same thing. Indeed, I liked the expression so much that I wrote a little poem on it, which I hope will be allowed to be posted here (despite being slightly off topic):

    Semantic Drift

    “Wood” now no longer sounds crazy,
    While “stout” only scarcely seems strong;
    “Foul” connotes nothing of lazy,
    And “sin” suggests nothing much wrong.

    Words molt old meanings like feathers,
    Make speaking a spiel of dumb luck,
    Bring us all to the ends of our tethers,
    Leave us all without giving a f**k.

    As you see, I am somewhat old fashioned when I use a word considered vulgar. My solution only solves for silent reading, though.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  3. The Shadow says:

    “Digital camera” makes me think of a room intended for displaying fingers.

    “Digital” is another parasyronym, by the by.

  4. Perhaps the term we’ve been searching for is: “Driftword.”

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    • Dr. Boli says:

      For some reason this comment was dumped into the trash bin. We still do not know how that happened. It came from a frequent correspondent, it does not appear to include any of the terms Dr. Boli has prohibited (mostly names of certain popular wonder drugs), and his secretary swears he did not push the button himself. We can only attribute it to the slow march of the artificial-stupidity apocalypse.

  5. Or has someone already suggested “Driftword”?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  6. My original comment suggesting “Driftword” seems to have drifted away. That must have been while I was writing: “Or has someone already suggested ‘Driftword’?” Perhaps the original wouldn’t be clear any more, even if some of you caught the comment so here is the original, if my memory serves me well: “Perhaps the term for the process described should be driftword.”

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  7. Belfry Bat says:

    I thought of another: “empower”, used to mean “encourage/incite/seduce”.

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