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"Misused":

Alan Gunn comments:

It's not possible, or even desirable, to stop English from changing in this way, but why should we encourage it, or think it always a good thing? I'd just add that changes like this not only make understanding more difficult during the transition, they end up making older writings hard for modern readers to understand. And some of the changes are downright ugly: to me, at least, an ordinary English word like "happen" sounds better than "transpire." (And I suspect the people who like words like "transpire" of trying to talk down to people who use normal English words. Lots of them seem to have gone to expensive schools, and to talk about their schooling at length.)

As it happens, I don't like "transpire" to mean "happen" for reasons similar to Alan's: "Happen" sounds simpler and less Latinate. But claims about how some new usage is supposedly a "change" -- especially, by implication a recent change (since all usages are novel if you go back far enough) -- always make me want to go check, preferably in the Oxford English Dictionary. And here's what I see in the OED:

b. Misused for: To occur, happen, take place.
Evidently arising from misunderstanding such a sentence as 'What had transpired during his absence he did not know'.

1775 A. ADAMS Let. 31 July in J. & A. Adams Familiar Lett. Revolution (1876) 91 There is nothing new transpired since I wrote you last. 1804 Age of Inquiry (Hartford, Conn.) 46 When..the reformation transpired in England..almost the whole nation rejoiced. 1810 F. DUDLEY Amoroso I. 14 Could short-sighted mortality..foresee events that are about to transpire. 1828 WEBSTER, Transpire..3. To happen or come to pass. 1841 W. L. GARRISON in Life (1889) III. 16 An event..which we believe transpired eighteen hundred years ago. 1848 DICKENS Dombey xxxii, Few changes{em}hardly any{em}have transpired among his ship's company. 1858 HAWTHORNE Fr. & It. Note-bks. I. 225 Accurate information on whatever subject transpired. 1883 L. OLIPHANT Altiora Peto I. 277 His account of what transpired was so utterly unlike what I expected.

A few thoughts: First, the OED does say that the word is "Misused for ... happen," a rare bit of what looks like prescriptivism. Second, the "change" seems to have happened at least two centuries ago; the OED doesn't tell us how common a usage was, so maybe it's become much more common recently, but there certainly are plenty of attributions -- and not from obscure sources -- going back to the 1800s.

Third, the misusers include, among others, Dickens and Hawthorne. So the word has commonly been used in a particular way. It has been used this way for a long time. And it has been used this way by some of the leading English-language writers. How then can we report this as a "misuse" as opposed to just a use (or perhaps a use that originated from a misconception, though that hardly makes the use a misuse today)?

Alan Gunn (mail):
Well, I'm not going to man the barricades in an effort to dislodge the newer use of transpire. But one reason for objecting to it, apart from novelty, may be that, literally, it means "breathe through." It makes sense that "breathe through" could come to mean "get known"; it doesn't seem to make sense that it should come to mean happen. Personally, I'm with Samuel Johnson: even in the older sense, "get known" is better than "transpire," a word I've never used, though a law-review editor once put it into one of my articles without my knowledge. Similarly, while I guess I wouldn't call it an error any longer, I don't like the use of verbal to mean oral, because I can remember just enough Latin to see why it originally meant "in words" rather than "by mouth." For those of us who think some uses are better than others, easily accessible root-word meanings are sometimes a factor. To be sure, one can carry this too far. I recall that Goethe objected to "automobile" because it mixed Latin and Greek; he preferred "ipsomobile."
7.24.2007 3:02pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Alan: I have no problem with claims that some usage is inelegant, or should otherwise be avoided for some reason. I'm not sure how much weight the etymology of the word should have here, but if you want to make such arguments, that's fine. My argument in these posts has been against unfounded claims that a usage is wrong.

Also, could we at least agree to remove the "any longer" from your "I guess I wouldn't call [verbal to mean oral] an error any longer"? The OED reports that verbal has meant "Expressed or conveyed by speech instead of writing; stated or delivered by word of mouth; oral" since at least 1591, and cites uses by, among others, Pepys, Swift, and Chambers' Cyclopedia. You are surely free not to use "verbal" this way, and to praise "easily accessible root-word meanings." But let's at least not suggest that the "oral" meaning of "verbal" is somehow new.
7.24.2007 3:21pm
BobH (mail):
That prescient Goethe, not only foreseeing the eventual invention of the automobile but objecting to its eventual name!

Interestingly, the German word for automobile, "Fahrzeug," neatly skirts Goethe's cavil, since it's not built out of the Greek OR Latin words for "self" and "move" but -- very eloquently, in my view -- from the German words for "drive" and "thing." That is, in German a car is a "drive thing." (In the same vein, "Feuerzeug" -- "fire thing" -- means cigarette lighter, and "Flugzeug" -- "fly thing" -- means airplane. Less explicable is "Fahrstuhl" -- "drive chair" -- for elevator, but nobody expects the German language to be logical.)

I also find it interesting that words we have created from Latin roots leaped into German sui generis, i.e., as wholly German words. For example, what we call television -- "far see" -- the Germans call "Fernseh," which literally means "far see." What we call a hippopotamus -- "river horse" -- the Germans call "Flusspferd," which literally means "river horse."

Them wacky Germans!!
7.24.2007 4:07pm
Seamus (mail):
I recall that Goethe objected to "automobile" because it mixed Latin and Greek; he preferred "ipsomobile."

I've heard the same objection made against "homosexual." Of course, if we took it seriously, we'd object to "television" as well.
7.24.2007 5:14pm
Illiterate (mail):
Until I looked up transpire a moment ago, I didn't know it had a definition other than to happen!
7.24.2007 6:10pm
Latinist:
I think I'm basically on the Volokhs' side in this, but I actually don't see what's wrong with talking about words being "misused" in this sense. (This discussion is getting a little weird, as we discuss whether we're misusing the word "misuse," but I say we forge on nonetheless.)
Look, if you think a usage is inelegant, confusing, etc.; if you think that that usage, no matter how ancient and traditional, makes the English language less expressive and harder to understand; if you think that one would do better (be clearer, more elegant, whatever) never to write or speak that way under any circumstances -- well then "misuse" and "wrong" sound like perfectly good words for expressing your opinion. Of course you wouldn't say that Dickens was an illiterate moron; but is it really unacceptable to say that he once misused one particular word? Or that the language has changed since Dickens' time, so that what was fine for him would be wrong if used now? (For example, someone who today used commas the way Dickens routinely did would, I think, be almost universally agreed to be "misusing" them.)
7.25.2007 5:17pm