The football commentator wanted to say “the importance of this goal couldn’t be overestimated”. What came out of his mouth was “the enormity of this goal couldn’t be underestimated”.
In other words, the goal was so revolting and inconsequential that the team ought to have been penalised for scoring it.
Yes, fine, I could make allowances for our comprehensive education and guess what he was trying to say. In that context, I would probably have guessed right.
But there are many other contexts in which guesswork could lead to a misunderstanding or even danger. For example, a man may hurt himself and others if he thinks inflammable means in no risk of conflagration. Or he could be embarrassed if he asks his colleague to apprise (rather than appraise) him and, instead of getting the progress report he expects, he hears that his management skills aren’t up to scratch.
The other day a chap at my club used the word meretricious when he meant meritorious. Had he said, for example, all show, no substance, the communication would have been complete. As it was, his attempt to sound ‘posh’ left me guessing which of the antonymous derivatives of the Latin merere he meant. Either one could have fit the context.
Now, if we accept that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then we can extrapolate ever so slightly and agree that it isn’t just weapons but also words that must be licensed. After all, the good book says a word came before everything else, including weapons.
Anyone who disagrees must insist, illogically, that a handyman who fixes a leaky tap must be legally accredited to provide that service, whereas, say, a paramedic is free to say acute when he means chronic (a widespread error). Surely a little drip in the plumbing isn’t as fraught with danger as a confusion between medical antonyms?
For a communication to take place, words must have the same meaning for everybody. That’s why we have dictionaries, those thick books telling us what words mean. If the meaning one wishes to attach to a word diverges from the dictionary definition, a game of Chinese whispers is likely to arise.
Someone who says he is bemused when he means amused vandalises communication, thereby disconnecting people from one another – with potentially disastrous social consequences. Rather than forming a society, people run the risk of becoming deracinated, asocial individuals punished by God.
After all, in God’s eyes erecting “a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven” with the subsequent disintegration of language was severe punishment: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
But don’t despair: help is on the way, and Babel will not prevail. All you have to do is petition your MP (or congressman, if you are American) to put forth a bill based on my modest proposal. Here it is: Every adult, especially if his speech often finds itself in the public domain, must be licensed to use a specific level of vocabulary.
The levels would depend on the frequency of usage. According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are 171,146 words commonly used in English. Yet some of them are used more commonly than others. For example, soon is comfortably within the first 1,000 most frequently used words, while saliency is just outside the top 45,000.
Hence I propose four frequency bands, with each requiring its own licence. The first band should include words ranked within the top 2,000; the second, those in the top 10,000; the third, those in the top 30,000; and the fourth, unlimited.
Misusing words one isn’t licensed to utter should be punishable by incrementally escalating fines. These may or may not be means-tested – I haven’t really worked out every detail yet. Actually, since I dislike the very notion of means-tested fines, perhaps making the punishment commensurate with the size of the audience would be fairer.
I readily admit that this proposal is somewhat radical. But radical is better than impossible, which is the only other option: getting a system of education that doesn’t churn out generation after generation of ignoramuses. You know, the kind Britain used to have before the arrival of progress in the 1960s.