Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.


10 Responses to Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

  1. bevrowe says:

    I don’t like emojis and never use them. But the idea that they could ruin English is absurd. After all, Chinese, a non-trivial linguistic phenomenon, is written entirely in emojis.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It is absurd, and suggests a lack of basic reflection on the issue. I like emojis but use them at very different rates in different contexts: regularly on WhatsApp, occasionally on Twitter, seldom in email.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Emojis seem conducive to keeping everyone from misunderstandings. It is already a feat to keep friendship and civility during tumultuous times… emojis may save us! On the other hand, let us not get lazy and resort to only picture drawings. Life is a balancing act and too much of anything (in this case an emoji avalanche) can have adverse health affects.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, I find them useful sometimes for conveying or clarifying tone – like emoticons, but with more range. (I use emoticons too.) They can also be a lot of fun. As you say, balance is the thing.

  3. John Cowan says:

    For dei-ice read de-ice.

  4. mazblast says:

    I don’t have a problem with people using emojis, which often convey an emotion better than words. I have a problem with people who try to communicate in little or nothing EXCEPT emojis. “Simple and concise” has its role, but sometimes I’m looking for a great deal more than that, such as HOW you got from Premise A to Conclusion K.

    I also use emoticons, but very sparingly and usually to distinguish when I’m not being serious.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Sure. Emojis are good for colour and expressiveness, but they’re extremely limited compared with language. If nuance is needed, they’re likely to fall short in isolation.

      • I’m one of those people for whom “if it can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood” is the whole truth. Sometimes the emoji in its limitations is better for me than the word, whose meaning will be misunderstood, misconstrued, etc. In person, my meaning seems to be clear; in writing, often not so much or at all.

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