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June 21, 2020

Here’s David Aaronovitch, in a book review in yesterday’s Times: ‘This question [of why people dogmatically stick to errors] becomes even more poignant when you consider what happened long after Galileo’s death.’

Whoa, there. Hold on a minute, Dave. Let’s back up. Poignant? What do you mean?

I’ll answer my own question. By poignant in this case Aaronovitch clearly means something like relevant, important, or on-target – instead of the traditional meaning of the word, which is ‘piercingly sad’ (from the French word for dagger, poignard). But the traditional meaning is withering away before our eyes. More and more writers are now using it in Aaronovitch’s sense. Dictionaries do not yet recognise this new usage but it surely can’t be long before they do so. But what is the reason for this change?

I think there are two. One is that poignant is (or was) a slightly unusual word, not used often enough for its original sense to be kept in good repair. The less often a word is used, the vaguer it’s possible to be about its meaning. The second reason is the similarity in sound between poignant and point. We don’t actually have a convenient single word that means ‘to the point’ but it would be useful to have one – and here’s poignant, under-used, with the right sort of sound-association, waiting in the wings, so to speak.

I have blogged about this change before – 

 – and it is clear that the pace of it is accelerating. And the new sense of poignant is more useful, suitable to more contexts than the old one, so it gets more outings. I expect I will end up by adopting the new usage myself one day. But not yet. I still have an affection for the old meaning and watching it slowly die is – well, poignant.

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  1. David Abbott permalink

    Is the meaning of poignant the same in the concise Oxford dictionary, the shorter Oxford dictionary, and the 17 (or is it 18) complete Oxford dictionaries? I am not wealthy enough (yet) to buy the complete Oxford dictionaries. Presumably you have access to them as opposed to actually personally owning them?

  2. David Abbott permalink

    For how many years have you studied 1) Latin 2) Greek 3) French?

    • Ally permalink

      Changes happen. When I were a lad:
      if you had a partner it meant you were in business with someone and feeling gay meant you were in a bright, cheerful mood, a mobile was something that hung from the ceiling and if you felt queer it meant you had a tummy upset.

  3. I did Latin at school to O-level (don’t remember much about it, though). I’ve never studied Greek. But I know French pretty well, having lived there for a year when i was in my late 20s.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    In the early 80s the word “elegiac” appeared in every edition of the NME. Can’t remember the last time I saw it in print.

  5. Mark Brafield permalink

    I know all the arguments about language changing, but I still find this troubling. It is not just that Aaronovitch gets it wrong but that the sub-editor and editor who presumably read the article were prepared to let it go as well. If he meant that the circumstances were relevant, apt, important, on-target or apposite, then he had precisely those words to draw on. The fact that he used ‘poignant’ in the wrong way suggests that he is either lazy or seeks to be modishly cool.

    I am reminded of a recent exchange when Harry and Meghan refused to speak to the Daily Mail and the editor exploded that ‘this was censorship’. The Times the next day carried a very short letter from Tom Stoppard saying ‘it really isn’t; look it up’. Words actually have meanings, however much you may not like them.

    Yours, grumpy old man.

  6. Craig permalink

    I really like it’s original meaning and hope it somehow survives it’s new modern one. It’s one of those words that I find beautiful both to say (a bit strange but it feels nice to say it in a physical sense) and it’s meaning.

    Nothing more to add 🙂 Hope you are all well.

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