Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Verbicide, the misunderstood crime

The word of the day (happy result of a dictionary detour) is:  

1. the willful distortion or depreciation of the original meaning of a word.
2. a person who willfully distorts the meaning of a word.

Note the deliberation: verbicide is a sin of commission. This isn't malapropism, mistaken identity, well-meaning thought getting out ahead of vocabulary. Destructive of language, destructive of meaning, verbicide might be a form of lying. A cause of loss, occasion for mourning, for fury. 

But I especially like the second meaning, the thought that one might be a verbicide. What might a verbicide wear, how might she try to conceal her crimes? Is there a Most Wanted list?

Now, cross-checking this definition in the little electronic dictionary embedded in my word processor, no verbicide appears. The closest options are herbicide and vermicide. Worm poison, plant poison-- lots of poisons in the world. No human agents of destruction (think parricide, fratricide) in those definitions. Just substances, slick and dangerous and, one hopes, sparingly applied. But verbicide goes unmentioned, unrecorded--the forgotten crime, the silent killer.

Riffing on verbicide, it's true, might lead me down that slippery slope, that primrose path paved with good intentions to the hell of depreciated or distorted meanings, decapitated verbs, slaughtered adjectives. And what of the adverb, so frequently maligned by the authors of writing how-to books? Who will protect hopefully, quickly, brilliantly?

Verbicide: stop it, prevent it, punish it! You can't be too careful.

I have never said of anyone, "He is an unrepentant verbicide," but I will be looking for my chance to do so.


  1. Amalia,

    I stumbled across your blog because of my research into Linda Epstein, your agent. Lately, I have been reading and reviewing several indie authors. I am writing to tell you that if you ever want to use your new favorite sentence, just offer to review some indies. "S/He is an unrepentant verbicide" will lead off the section on the poor schmo who calls an abortifacient and "aborticide." Hmmm. Murdering an abortion. Does that mean spontaneous regeneration? Oh well. I like your writing style, and I write in Spanish from time to time, so with your permission, I'm following you.

    1. No doubt there are some words we might be glad to see fall victim to a verbicidal rampage. "Aborticide" seems like a candidate.

      Glad to be followed! (And Linda Epstein is terrific, by the way.)

  2. Moi, un verbicide? I, who rebukes a writer for saying "disinterested" when he plainly means "uninterested"? And who in my long life have seen the word "decimate" used correctly exactly once?

    But, yes, I do. I happily distort words -- or at least stretch them -- whenever I can, not to deceive the reader or impoverish our tongue, but to enrichen the language, as Shakespeare did, to show that our language is more plastic than we might have hitherto imagined, that our plain English words have more meanings than we might have thought. As when Henry V says that they will "enlarge" the prisoner, meaning not that they will increase his dimensions, but that they will set him at large.

    Poetic license in the hands of a poet is a good thing, or at least we are willing to tolerate it, and in the hands of an ordinary citizen it can make for sparkling conversation. (Do we distort the word "sparkling" when we apply it to a conversation?) But it is when politicians begin to exercise the license and words are given different meanings in order to deceive that things get dicey and verbicide becomes an ill thing.

    1. A colleague in French once had a student describe a writer's use of "poetic license" in terms that suggested a legal permit, as in a license to drive or to fish. An "enlargement," indeed--or perhaps a restriction.

  3. Popped over here from Twitter, and am very glad I did! I will also be looking for opportunities to accuse someone of being a verbicide, as there have been enough times already that I've felt that sentiment. Now I have the perfect word to express it.

    1. Glad you popped over! (Wait--might our "popping" be a deliberate distortion? Well, no intention to deceive.)