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J.A.A. Purves

Common Usage, Changing Meaning & Pejoration

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So I'm in the middle of a writing project for which I am collecting a list of words.

More specifically, I'm looking for words that primarily meant something good in the past, but now often have very negative connotations instead.

For example:

moderate

establishment

institution

prejudice

authority

prescription

religion

dogma

dogmatic

discriminate

shame

discipline

rhetoric

Can anyone think of a few more?

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You mean negative in a general sense, right? Some spheres—the academic, for instance—use "rhetoric" without any negative connotations.

As for additional words:

bureaucracy

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Dare I say it depends on what you mean by "meaning?" And to whom you think they have negative meanings?

Of your list, I only read 2 or 3 with unexamined, knee-jerk "that is a bad thing" reactions: prejudice, discriminate, and shame. And when I think about it I recognize that "dogma/tic" is negative for many people. But my gut reaction to the others is not particularly positive or negative.

The applied linguist in me wants to point out that whether words are associated with positive or negative meanings (and whether this has changed) -- that is, semantic prosody-- can be studied empirically. In fact, I would imagine that if you did a corpus study of "religion" in popular newspapers/magazines from 100 years ago and today, you would find some kind of shift.

But then again I kind of think applied linguistics applies to everything, and I am writing a dissertation on people's opinions about word usage in writing (albeit not from this angle) so you should probably take what I say with a grain of salt.

Edited by Joel

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You mean negative in a general sense, right? Some spheres—the academic, for instance—use "rhetoric" without any negative connotations.

Right.

Dare I say it depends on what you mean by "meaning?" And to whom you think they have negative meanings?

I'm thinking in terms of common usage. In other words, looking, for example, at how a word is used in a majority of current publications.

But my gut reaction to the others is not particularly positive or negative.

The sensibilities of many at A&F being what they are, I don't expect everyone here to agree or identify with how all these words are commonly used now in popular culture. For example, this thread I think is an example of how A&F'ers don't necessarily identify with the current trend to view the very idea of religion or being religious as undesirable. But if you read much of contemporary Christian bestsellers, you will find that a vast majority of them view the word "religion" in quite the negative light.

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But if you read much of contemporary Christian bestsellers, you will find that a vast majority of them view the word "religion" in quite the negative light.

Oh, for sure. I think I get the general thrust of where you're going. I just wanted to point out, somewhat pedantically, that there are empirical methods for studying words' connotations, and that this might strengthen your case.

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When did "prejudice" ever "primarily mean something good"? Even its most neutral meanings include arriving at hasty or uninformed conclusions, whether positive or negative.


There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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When did "prejudice" ever "primarily mean something good"? Even its most neutral meanings include arriving at hasty or uninformed conclusions, whether positive or negative.

And it's been that way at least since Austen.

--here's one: politics/political.

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When did "prejudice" ever "primarily mean something good"? Even its most neutral meanings include arriving at hasty or uninformed conclusions, whether positive or negative.

And it's been that way at least since Austen.

It's been that way since 1300, according to the OED. I can't find any indication that its primary connotation has ever been good.

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Oh, for sure. I think I get the general thrust of where you're going. I just wanted to point out, somewhat pedantically, that there are empirical methods for studying words' connotations, and that this might strengthen your case.

Thanks. If you can think of a favorite applied linguistics book, I'll give it a try.

When did "prejudice" ever "primarily mean something good"? Even its most neutral meanings include arriving at hasty or uninformed conclusions, whether positive or negative.

Yes, looking back on this I can see that the word does seem to have always held a negative connotation, deriving from praeiudicium in Latin, meaning prejudgment, prior judgment or a preconception. It just doesn't necessarily have to be negative, which would still make for a weaker case for the purposes of my writing project.

I was thinking of Theodore Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice, who, in his discussion of the history of the word, basically argues that during the Enlightenment Age there was a systematic attempt to get rid of all prejudices, but this went against those who argued that prejudgments and preconceptions were often good and necessary for particular purposes. In other words, while not everyone reasons this out, there are reasons to give specific commonly accepted things presumptions in their favor - just as there are reasons to question specific commonly accepted things when they are causing real harm.

I've also been reading Edmund Burke lately, who wrote things like this:

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, ... that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them ... We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would be better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

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This process is called pejoration. It is more common than the opposite process of amelioration.

There are lots of examples in etymological history, though these might be more remote than you're looking for: churl, knave, hussy, tart, senile, silly, lewd, gaudy and tawdry.

Examples that might be closer to your purpose include agenda, artificial, censor, propaganda, pompous, notorious, hierarchy and entitlement.


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Argh ... I remember the term pejoration now, but I was racking my brains and couldn't, for the life of me, remember it.

Thanks, guys.

Facetious, censor and hierarchy were also not on my radar, but I'm finding the history of all three to be fascinating.

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