This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Nuts and Bolts: catachresis

Catachresis is getting language wrong. 

The problem is, what's wrong?

'I'm going to put some vanquishing cream on before our date.'

Well, that's probably wrong - but also rather glorious.

Some people say using a word in a new way icatachresis (even though this would presumably condemn the original users of  the terms steering wheel and memory stick).

John van Sickle (according to Wikipedia) extends catachresis to anything going beyond the bounds of the literal:

'Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vex'd a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears:
What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.' 

 and, I mean, love isn't actually any of those things, is it?* 

Catachresis doesn't stop there: some say replacing any term with a less accurate one - rest-room for lavatory, for instance - is catachresis.

Derrida argues that, because language cannot be precise, it's all catachrestic; and Spivak says more or less the same thing but with special reference to words that describe groups: cats, for example, because all cats aren't the same.


Right. So, in that case is there ever any point in using language trying to communicate anything?

Of course there is. At least five points: it's useful, informative, beautiful, friendly - and FUN.

Idea To Ignore (Mostly) Today: catachresis. This word started off with the using-the-wrong-word meaning and has developed from there. It's Greek for abuse.

*That quotation is from that well-known mangler of the English language, William Shakespeare, from his pretty-much universally derided play Romeo and Juliet.

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