Monday, July 30, 2007

I kept using these words. You do not think they mean what I thought they meant.

In a recent conversation, I asked a friend whether or not he had ever been to Kamloops, BC. He had. I asked how many times. Several, he said. How many is that? About four, he replied. That's not several, I said. Several to me was around seven, maybe even more. Regardless of the range of numbers that the word represented, it was a large quantity word. Usually four is a small quantity, unless you're talking about the number of sleeves on a t-shirt, in which case its far too many. Thus four could not be represented by the word several.

I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. It was on my side. One of the meanings given was "a good many". Mind you, the OED labels this usage as obsolete. If only I had lived in the period from 1695 to 1883. I would have won that argument hands down. Of course, every other meaning given, especially those that appear to be more current, agreed with him. In particular entry 4: "As a vague numeral: Of an indefinite (but not large) number exceeding two or three; more than two or three but not very many. (The chief current sense.)" Boy was I wrong.

There are a number of other uses of the word, most of which are obsolete, or else their usage is restricted to certain contexts, such as the law. Most of them are consistent with the use of the word to mean a small quantity. In some contexts, it only means more than 1, and it appears that long ago, it was almost synonymous with individual. Clearly the meaning of the word is drifting toward meaning larger and larger quantities. Be patient Randy. Sooner or later, the meaning of the word will be what you think it does now, and then you'll win the argument.

For the time being, I think I'll avoid using that word. I'd appreciate if you didn't use it around me either. I just can't fathom that it could mean something as small as four, even if that were the number of sleeves on a t-shirt.

Another word whose proper meaning I recently discovered is the word ambivalent. I don't why I happened to be looking this one up in the dictionary, though having it wrong neither won nor lost me any arguments. None that I am aware of, anyway, though perhaps I've unwittingly embarrassed myself by using it incorrectly. Ambivalence to me had a sense of apathy. Having to choose between two options, I was ambivalent if I didn't care enough about either to choose one or the other, or in the case of my attitude to one particular thing, the word was synonymous with apathetic. In the case of having to choose, however, ambivalence has the sense of caring too much, while in the case of my attitude to one particular thing, it has the sense of passionate but opposite feelings, a love/hate sort of attitude. Look it up if you want something a clearer definition.

I'll have an easier time adjusting to this discovery than I will to the proper several, though I still feel like it's best for me to avoid this one for a while too.

I had also been using the words "insofar" "inasmuch" as if they were synonymous with "as far as". They are not. Not having had a reason to use either of these in some time, I think I've taken a long enough break, and the adjustment period is over. I'll be using these words at the next possible convenience. Inasmuch as it is appropriate.


e.go said...

even worse: i thought it could refer to three!

daniel said...

Several has always meant at least ten to me, anything lower was "a few".

Word of the day: uhbha

Jono_or_Janice said...

Like e.go I also thought "several" could mean three and I would never (and probably still won't) use it to refer to anything so large as 10.