At the peevers' waterhole
I remarked yesterday about a fatuous article on language by David Bentley Hart at First Things, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. But if you want to get a sense of how peevers’ minds work, you need to look at the extensive comments on that article. I offer a sampling.
Item: ‘transpire' means 'to breath across’ not to happen.
One of the classic peever attitudes is that a word cannot stray from its etymological origins. You get that as well from the people who insist that decimate must mean “to reduce by a tenth.” The sensible position is to say that it can mean “to reduce substantially” while resisting the usage “to destroy.”
Transpire, meaning “to breathe forth” or “to give off or discharge” dates from the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A more common meaning, “to become known,” dates from the eighteenth century. What the Peevery calls an error, “to take place,” has cropped up for two centuries now and does not look as if it is going away. I’ll warrant that you would have some difficulty finding many citations for transpire meaning “to escape from secrecy to notice” in the past half-century.
(I will be charitable and suggest that breath for breathe in the comment is merely a typographical error.)
Item: I share in your despair over the misuse of "restive," though I'm afraid by now the barbarians have not only ingested it, but have popped it out in reverse. Witness this headline published in the NYTimes a few days ago: "Syrian Forces Crack Down in Restive City With Raids and Gunfire." The article makes it clear that the city in question is anything but "inactive" and "inert."
Similar to the etymological fallacy is the insistence that a word can have only one meaning, and that that meaning is eternally stable. Restive for “inactive” or “inert” is indeed in the OED, which labels it “Now rare or Obs.” In our time, it means either “stubborn” and “unmanageable” or “restless” and “impatient,” the latter sense being the more common. The most common error in using it is to make it a synonym of restful, which has the opposite sense.
Someone else made the same point in a comment that I made in my post, that idyll, pace Dr. Hart, is pronounced with a long i, as indicated by several dictionaries and Garner’s Modern American Usage. Dr. Hart’s riposte:
Apparently all three of the dictionaries you consulted are extremely bad. No surprise there: many dictionaries now record the pronunciation with which the lexicographer is familiar, even if it is wrong. Still, I have never seen the "idol" pronunciation listed as any but a secondary pronunciation, probably defective. As for Garner's, I now know never to consult it. Believe me, the preferred (and I would say correct) pronunciation is with an initial short i; and, to my ear, the second syllable should ideally have a sound somewhere midway between "ill" and "eel."
Apparently the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the defectives. Another acolyte chimes in:
I recommend the Webster's comprehensive Second Edition, the old Oxford English Dictionary (not the new one, which does not 'prescribe'), and Fowler's English Usage, either first or second version. Also The King's English by the brothers Fowler. There is an old American book called Index of English, but I don't remember who wrote it. An English dictionary that's pretty good is Chamber's (or it used to be).
There you have it: You can’t trust dictionaries, because they tell you what people mean with words. There’s an implied slap here at Webster’s Third for its “permissiveness,” about which the Peevery has now carried on for fifty years.
Item: The Myths of the Golden Age and Ideal English
What is back of much of this talk is the belief that there was a point, usually in the writer’s youth, when the English language was stable and teachers told everyone The Rules and everyone who had been educated followed them. Some time before that wicked, wicked Webster’s Third International.
There was, of course, no such time. Anyone who has taken a serious look at English from the time of Chaucer to the present sees that it, like any living language, is always in flux, with meanings and whole words becoming obsolete, new words being coined or appropriated from other languages, old words assuming new senses. This is the norm, and intelligent writers and editors are like pilots, continually making adjustments to allow for lift, thrust, and drag amid shifting conditions.
There is no ideal, eternal, perfect, Platonic English known to a handful of adepts. There is only the language that we all speak and write, and its grammar and syntax and the meanings of its words are established by the way that the great mass of us use them over time. There are choices to be made by speakers and writers who aspire to be clear and exact, but those choices are informed by judgment, not dicta.
You can adopt the attitude of Dr. Hart and his sectaries—you’re free to speak and write in English as you choose. But to the degree that you adopt his shibboleths and superstitions, you will find the language passing you by, and fewer and fewer people will understand what you are trying to say. Or care to listen.