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What does “poignant” mean?

April 2, 2014

 I’ve been noticing an interesting new misuse of the word poignant. An example occurred in an essay on children’s literature which I was marking recently: “The critic Roni Natov argues that Tom’s Midnight Garden has a strong sense of the pastoral. This seems poignant as much of the mythic time in the novel is spent in sunlit days in the garden…”

Clearly this isn’t the correct meaning of poignant, which means “piercingly sad”, and derives from the French word poignard, a dagger (the word appears in slightly different form in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs”, says Benedick of Beatrice). An event or situation or gesture or utterance describable as poignant is so sad it feels like being stabbed with a dagger.

But that can’t be the meaning my student had in mind. The context suggests she thought poignant means that Roni Natov had got the point, had hit the nail on the head – and when I came across it I realised that it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it misused in this way, though I hadn’t made a conscious note of previous occasions. It looks as if this word supplies a need: we don’t have a single adjective which means “to the point” or “hits-the-nail-right-on-the head”, but that’s what this mis-usage is trying to get at. No doubt the sound similarity between poignant and point is responsible.

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7 Comments
  1. I imagine there was probably a mixup with “pertinent”.

  2. Well, you could be right.

  3. Monkypo1 permalink

    I’ve noticed this same misuse as well. Not only in other people, but also in myself before looking it up. I say we do away with the old definition. People are already using it this new way. All it will take is time.

  4. Melontham permalink

    It’s true; nobody uses the word correctly from what I’ve seen. The misuse of “poignant” is only slightly less exasperating than the misuse of “peruse,” as people now commonly use that term when the word they intended would have been found on its list of antonyms! So should we alter the English language for a population of people whose members literally have dictionaries at their fingertips? Absolutely not! This is not a new dialect–it is carelessness. Our language is a living entity that evolves as much as does the society that speaks it, but it doesn’t make sense in evolution to get rid of something useful. After all, “poignant” is a unique word, and if its meaning were altered, no synonym could easily take its place. There is indeed a niche that needs to be filled for a term meaning “to the point, but in an emotional kind of way”, which is the context in which this contentious p-word is most often used. Until someone coins a term, the niche remains open. However, I would far prefer an idiom or a series of adjectives to an incorrectly used word. Language is precious and beautiful. Our relationships depend upon its precision. Few people appreciate that, but it is up to those of us who do to protect it.

  5. Russ permalink

    I’ve heard “poignant” misused as a synonym for “sweet”

  6. steve jobs permalink

    I just used the word in the same way as you described. Someone made a valid and profound argument and I said they were “very poignant”

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