Verbicide (Words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

verbicide - artisan donut
"In the world of bread bakers and grammarians alike," says Ciril Hitz, "there has been much debate about the usage of the word artisan. ... Unfortunately, the word artisan is sometimes liberally used and abused in the marketing campaigns of large bakeries and corporations diluting its meaning" ( Baking Artisan Bread, 2008). (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Definition

Verbicide literally means "the murder of a word." Figuratively it refers to the deliberate distortion or weakening of a word's meaning.

The term verbicide was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) and popularized by English author C.S. Lewis.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see::

    Examples and Observations

    • "Let me lay down the law upon the subject. Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide--that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life--are alike forbidden. Manslaughter, which is the meaning of the one, is the same as man's laughter, which is the end of the other."
      (Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858)
       
    • C.S. Lewis on Verbicide
      "Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for 'very,' tremendous for 'great,' sadism for 'cruelty,' and unthinkable for 'undesirable' were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its 'selling quality.' Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . .

      "It may not . . . be entirely useless to resolve that we ourselves will never commit verbicide. If modern critical usage seems to be initiating a process which might finally make adolescent and contemporary mere synonyms for bad and good--and stranger things have happened--we should banish them from our vocabulary. I am tempted to adapt the couplet we see in some parks--
      Let no one say, and say it to your shame,
      That there was meaning here before you came."
      (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press, 1960)
       
    • Artisan: Verbicide or Semantic Change?

      According to a report at TODAY.com, Marc Fintz, the director of business development at Davidovich Bakery in Queens, N.Y., has filed a complaint against Dunkin' Donuts for its abuse of the word artisan.

      Dunkin's Artisan Bagels, says Fintz, aren't even remotely artisanal. To label a food item artisan creates the perception that your products are produced by hand, using traditional methods in small quantities. This is not the case."

      In its response to the complaint, Dunkin' Brands invoked the sentiments of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, who said, "When I use a word, . . . it means just what I choose it to mean":

      The word "artisan," which has been used by numerous other retailers in the food and restaurant industry, is a common term used to describe quality food and authentic, traditional ingredients and taste. We therefore believe it is a fair and appropriate word to describe the line of bagels featuring our new bagel recipe. As the number one retailer of bagels in America, we also believe that the word "artisan" underscores our long heritage of bagel innovation and leadership.
      So it appears that the noun artisan has evolved into a vague commercial buzzword for "a pretty good thing worth buying." (Similar to the way that iconic has come to mean "someone or something that you've probably heard of.") Indeed, Forbes magazine reports that over the past five years "more than 800 new food products were bestowed the moniker artisan."
       

      But is it really worth filing a complaint against Dunkin' Donuts--or Nabisco or Tostitos or Domino's or Wendy's or any other manufacturer of a dubiously labeled "artisan" product? After all, English words have been changing their meanings for centuries, and semantic change is pretty much unstoppable. (Keep in mind that the word manufacture itself once referred to the process of making a product by hand.)

      What seems clear is that the word artisan, like the purr words natural and gourmet, is well on its way to being emptied of significant meaning. The best we can do, C.S. Lewis suggests, is refuse to participate in the crime.
       

    • Verbicide and Swearing
      "[Verbicide] describes a semantic trend, widely apparent in the history of swearing, whereby words that originally had great emotive force and impact have their power eroded through constant repetition and indiscriminate use. . . . The trend applies to virtually all categories of swearing, religious, genital, copulatory, and excretory. Examples abound, not just in swearing, but in words which previously had some religious sense, such as awful, ghastly, hellish, or dismal, as well as positives such as divine, heavenly, paradise, and miracle. George Santayana's succinct observation 'Oaths are the fossils of piety' (1900, 148) sums up the history of this semantic area."
      (Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing. M.E. Sharpe, 2006)