Catachresis and the amusing, awful and artificial cathedral

New words arise in several ways. They can be invented, imported from another language, made by mistake, or made by adding to, subtracting from, or mutating an existing word. And sometimes words attain a new meaning just by waiting a while.

The technical term for this last phenomenon is catachresis, though the word has other meanings, as we will see. The word catachresis arrived, through the Latin word of the same spelling, from the Greek katakhrēsis, excessive use, from katakhrēsthai, to misuse or use up. Its plural is catachreses, its adjectival forms catachrestic and catachrestical.

Whether or not words formed by catachresis are, strictly speaking, new words depends on how strict you are about such categorisation. Some authorities describe catachresis as the deterioration of a word, but it can also be described more neutrally as semantic drift, which is an inescapable characteristic of any language. As Robert Burchfield wrote in The English Language:

it is best to assume . . . that no single word in the [English] language is a stable, unchanging, and immutable legacy from the past, however fixed, dependable, and definable it may seem at any time.

St_Paul'sIn Our Language, Simeon Potter illustrates catachresis by reporting that when King James II saw the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, he described it as amusing, awful, and artificial. The King meant no offence, and presumably none was taken, because those words then denoted pleasing, awesome (i.e. awe-inspiring), and skilfully achieved, respectively. (Note: according to some sources it was Queen Anne who offered the now-puzzling observation.) When Chaucer used nice it meant ignorant or unaware; later it meant fastidious or precise, among other things – the OED has 14 separate entries for the word, differentiated by meaning and historical usage.

Examples are virtually endless. Girl used to be gender-independent. Counterfeit used to refer to a legitimate copy, while manufacture meant make by hand. Effete meant no longer fertile. Silly (as seely) meant happy, lucky, and blessed, then (as silly) helpless and piteous, then feeble or insignificant, then simple or unsophisticated, before taking on its current meaning. Fruition originally signified enjoyment, but false association with bearing fruit has lent it the common meaning of something realised, especially in the phrase come (or bring) to fruition.

Crafty once meant powerful, and cunning meant knowledgeable; each has gradually taken on negative connotations (this is called pejoration). The converse process, amelioration, is evident in the slang uses of wicked, deadly, and sick. In Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson points out that words sometimes change by becoming more specific: starve formerly meant die (especially slowly), meat once meant (any) food, and deer once meant (any) animal.

Strangely but perhaps suitably, dictionary definitions of catachresis diverge from the sense of semantic drift. Across the Atlantic, Merriam-Webster defines it as (1) use of the wrong word for the context, or (2) use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech. The definition offered by The Columbia Guide to Standard American English is broader:

either the misuse of a word or a mistaken form of a word, as in a mixed metaphor such as He kept a tight rein on his boiling temper, a paradox such as a tall dwarf, or an explanation of a word that leads to a folk etymology, such as sparrow grass for asparagus.

This etymological aspect is included in the succinct definition at Luciferous Logolepsy. Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, sticks to the narrow definition (‘a word misused’) and cites two examples (anachronism for anomaly, to subject for to subordinate) before writing that because his book deals with the commonest catachreses in the language, a lengthy entry on catachresis per se is unnecessary. Quite.

RenoirPartridge’s fellow New Zealander Robert Burchfield, in the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, distinguishes between grammatical and rhetorical catachresis. Grammatical catachresis seems to include lexical catachresis, which he illustrates with examples such as infer for imply, and refute for deny, contradict (without argument).

Rhetorical catachresis – ‘abuse or perversion of a trope or metaphor’ – is perhaps more precisely called abusio (hat tip to Language Log), but if we allow the looser definition it is typified by Shakespeare’s ‘To take arms against a sea of troubles’. Here it is a paradoxical flourish, often used deliberately for rhetorical effect.

Such striking incongruity is especially appropriate to poetry, such as in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Once below a time’, E. E. Cummings’s ‘the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses’, and John Milton’s ‘Blind mouths!’ (line 119). Less exalted, but impressively muddled in its own way, is this quote: “If this thing starts to snowball, it will catch fire right across the country.” Poetic licence aside, catachresis is often just a mistake, as we have seen, e.g. flaunt for flout, ecliptic for eclectic.

The OED defines catachresis as ‘(An instance of) the incorrect use of words’. But in its absoluteness this definition is limiting: since the meaning of many (if not all) words inevitably drifts, correctness and incorrectness themselves are subject to modification. In the first Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler defines catachresis as ‘wrong application of a term, use of words in senses that do not belong to them’, adding examples such as the use of mutual to mean common, and chronic to mean severe.

To an extent Fowler was right, though his examples reveal pet prejudices. In the dictionary’s revised second edition, Ernest Gowers retains Fowler’s definition and changes a couple of the examples, but in The Complete Plain Words Gowers notes a common misuse of the word by grammarians themselves. Definitional inconsistencies notwithstanding, catachresis is a fascinating feature of language.

Images: Christopher Wren’s final design for his amusing, awful and artificial cathedral; painting by Renoir.

11 Responses to Catachresis and the amusing, awful and artificial cathedral

  1. Fran says:

    Really helpful stuff. So interesting. Thanks.

  2. Stan says:

    You’re very welcome, Fran. I’m glad it was of interest to you.

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    As Jakob II. with dot(James II without dot in English) would (perhaps/probably) say: Amusing, awful and artificial!
    Just back from picking some meat from the cherry-tree, this was a real katharsis.
    In other words: Great post, Stan.
    From now on I shall try to avoid to call a catachresis, what after I’ve been moving to my last dwelling six feet under might be comme il fault.

  4. Stan says:

    Thank you Sean. I feel seely now, and I’m glad your cherry tree is delivering both fruit and fruition.

  5. HECK says:

    Ah, yes, the inexorable tides of change in the words we know and love. I once fought it myself, wanting to keep the words I loved fine and pristine, imprisoned on a pedestal, where they could remain as they were when I first heard and used them. I resisted change, I argued my points against brash, new usage, till at last I came to accept the inevitable changes–that ‘moot’ no long meant ‘up for argument’ but ‘past arguing’–and when I did, my points all became…well, moot.

  6. Stan says:

    HECK: That’s a natural impulse, I think. Humans are drawn to ideas of stability and permanence, and it can take a conscious effort to talk ourselves out of it when it doesn’t accord with ever-changing reality. That this change is often gradual and piecemeal makes it easier to subscribe to the notion that it must be degenerative and just plain wrong.

    An example from my own wretchedly prescriptivist past: I used to think that ‘data’ could not and should not be singular. I resisted the truth, refused to handle or even entertain it, for a while, before realising how foolishly I was behaving. A modest adjustment and the world suddenly worked better.

  7. […] and even more changeable, but this blog post is already long enough. I wrote a little about it here, if you’re curious. And if you’d like to share your thoughts below, that would be really […]

  8. Sherry says:

    I came across this post when searching online for references to “catachresis.” The _Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics_, 4th ed, while explaining several uses of the term, begins with the Stoic grammarians’ definition of catachresis as “the use of a borrowed word for something that does not have a name of its own.” Examples are legs of a table, wings of a house. (Why the Stoics?)

  9. Thank you, this is really useful!

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