'Scientology' is a tautology. TriStar/Getty Images

January 4, 2024   6 mins

What is the most overused word in the English language at present? “Incredible.” Just count how many times it crops up in an evening’s TV viewing. It’s almost never used literally. “Incredible” literally means not to be believed, but when people say they work incredibly hard they’re not inviting you to disbelieve them. The English language is rich in superlatives — supreme, extraordinary, magnificent, exceptional, astonishing — but only three are in regular use: incredible, amazing and fantastic. The runaway success of “incredible” is currently being challenged by the clunky “impactful”. “Impact” moved centre stage fairly recently, ousting “effect”. Instead of asking if something is impactful you could just ask if it’s effective, rather as the bureaucratic phrase “on a daily basis” could be replaced by the simpler “every day”. But some gluttons for linguistic labour prefer four words where two would do.

A few years ago, the ground suddenly became the floor. For centuries the ground has been outdoors and the floor indoors, but now people fighting in the street are said to roll around on the floor. Armed police confronting a criminal in a park now shout “Get down on the floor!” when they mean the ground, to which a smart villain might reply “But there isn’t a floor around here!” You can find some fascinating plants in the woods if you look on the floor. You’re unlikely to find an existential crisis there, however. Existential crises are also a recent phenomenon, and involve a use of the word “existential” you won’t find in any dictionary. It doesn’t mean “imminent” or “severe”, it means “actually existing”. So an existential crisis is an actually existing one, which is the only kind of crisis you’re likely to come across. Non-existential crises are as rare as Trotskyist taxi drivers. If you want to impress your friends at dinner parties, you could say: “The morning star and the evening star are conceptually distinct but existentially identical”, meaning that the words mean different things but refer to the same actually existing object (the planet Venus). Or perhaps you should just say: “I had an incredibly impactful existential crisis on the Hyde Park floor.”

Some verbal innovations stick and some don’t. “Hopefully”, for example, doesn’t mean “It is to be hoped that”, which is what everyone uses it to mean; it means to do something while full of hope. But nobody is going to abandon the term just because a professor points this out, so what once would have been a misuse is now an acceptable usage. This is part of how languages work. The archaic word “anon” once meant “right away”, but given the human tendency to procrastinate it came to mean “soon” or “shortly”. For much the same reason, “I’ll be with you immediately” means the opposite of what it says, while “presently” once meant “right away” but now means “in a while”. “A mental health episode” also means the opposite of what it says. It’s just that people can’t bring themselves to talk about mental illness.

To refute is not to deny something but to prove that it’s wrong. So when someone says “I refute that”, you could always say, “Alright then, go on, refute it”. These days, “literally” is no longer to be taken literally. Someone described Ghislaine Maxwell as “literally the apple of her father’s eye”, which would have seriously affected his vision. People now literally explode with rage or literally fall through the floor with astonishment. Pubs are “literally just down the road” — rather, perhaps, than metaphorically so.

“Criteria” and “phenomena” are now used as though they are singular nouns. Even my computer does this in the case of “criteria”. People who are trying to talk or write in a “polite” way (Morrissey in his autobiography, for example) say things like “It’s an exciting time for you and I”, probably because they think “you and me” is too colloquial. But “you and me” is correct here — or, to put the point in a quaintly old-fashioned lingo nobody speaks any more, a pronoun takes the accusative case after a preposition. “It’s I” is grammatically correct but unacceptable; we’d say “It’s me” instead.

A “fulsome” apology isn’t whole-hearted but grovelling. The word “internet” is strictly speaking a tautology, like “unmarried bachelor”, since all nets are inter. One of a million good reasons for not becoming a Scientologist is that that’s a tautology too: “logy” means “knowledge” and so does “science”, so “Scientology” means the knowledge of knowledge. It’s doubtful that being told this would induce Tom Cruise to tear up his membership card. Or consider “She may potentially go on to study law in Berlin”. Spot the superfluous word in that sentence. “Potentially” is almost always unnecessary. A lot of people stick in a “potentially” when they use the future tense, but as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, it’s like a cog in the machine of language that isn’t meshing with anything.

Lots of verbal expressions have changed over time. We used to describe a collection of things as “several” or “many”, but now it’s the more technical-sounding “multiple”. There used to be questions about the steel industry, but now they’re around the steel industry. Things were once up to you but now they’re down to you. They were once sorted out, but now they’re just sorted. Once upon a time only babies and parcels were delivered; now everything is. “Begging the question” used to mean assuming the truth of something you’re trying to prove, but for the last century or so it’s come to mean raising a question.

There used to be changes, but today they’re almost all sea-changes or step-changes, while some windows have become brief, generous or rapidly narrowing, which our ancestors would have found as puzzling as doors being neurotic or munificent. People used to say that they were standing in a queue, but nowadays they say that they were stood in it. The same goes for “were sitting” and “were sat”. To use that old-fashioned lingo again, the imperfect tense is giving way to the perfect. Since these changes are almost certainly here to stay, this is a good example of how what’s strictly speaking ungrammatical can become common currency. It isn’t strictly grammatical to say “politics is the art of the possible”, but nobody is going to alter the “is” to “are”.

Good grammar forbids ending a sentence with a preposition, but you don’t often hear “This is a situation up with which I shall not put”. T sounds are now regularly dropped off the ends of words (“startin”, “deep in my hear”), and may well vanish altogether in the future, but they aren’t pronounced either in the poshest French, and there’s no law that decrees that every sound in a word must be pronounced. If you live in Burnley or Barnsley, dropping your h’s may be the correct thing to do. If you live in Camden or Chipping Norton, or anywhere where “a pat on the back” becomes “a pet on the beck”, it probably isn’t. There’s no reason why regional forms of speech should conform to Standard English. In fact, Standard English itself was once a regional form of speech. I went to school near Manchester, where pupils from small Lancashire mill towns would say things like “Hast tha seen ‘im over yon?” or “Ah’m reet jiggered” (I’m really tired). Given the conventions of their linguistic community, this was the right way for them to talk.

Language is interwoven with our forms of life. To give an example: people today quite often use the word “necessarily” unnecessarily, as in “It isn’t necessarily that all Tasmanian greengrocers are psychotic, it’s just that some of them are a bit eccentric”. What they mean is that all Tasmanian greengrocers aren’t psychotic at all, but adding a “necessarily” makes the statement sound less definite, and being indefinite is what postmodern culture prizes, in contrast to being certain. Certainty these days is increasingly equated with dogmatism, so that to say “It’s nine o’clock” is unpleasantly unambiguous, whereas “It’s like nine o’clock” is suitably tentative, provisional, open-ended and anti-authoritarian. Not many postmodernists, however, are so cavalier about certainty when it comes to finding out whether their bank account has been raided, or whether a certain drug might cause foetal abnormalities.

Language is a central constituent of our humanity. It’s true that some other animals employ highly complex sign-systems, but it’s unlikely that dolphins have come up with an equivalent of War and Peace, unless they are being remarkably furtive about it. Since language is the medium in which we hatch concepts, it’s what allows us to perform life-saving surgery, but also to turn flame-throwers on peasants’ huts. So are we superior or inferior to creatures that can do neither? The answer is an unequivocal yes and no.

Pointing out linguistic abuses is a perilous business. Language is so intimate an activity that to criticise the way somebody uses it can feel like undermining their identity. People have fought and died over the right to speak a particular language, or the freedom not to speak one imposed on them by an alien power. In 19th-century Ireland, schoolchildren sometimes wore sticks around their necks in class, and the stick was notched each time they used an Irish word. At the end of the school day, the child with the most notches was beaten in front of its fellows. Yet the teachers who ran this system were mostly Irish themselves, and might well have been Irish speakers. They were concerned that their students should succeed in life, and speaking English was thought essential to that end. The Irish constitution exists in two versions, one English and one Irish. Both documents state that in the event of a discrepancy between the two, the Irish version will be deemed to take precedence. But the Irish version is widely believed to be a translation of the English version. This is the kind of thing the English call “very Irish”.

One peculiarity of language is that it is effectively infinite. There’s always more of the stuff to come. I could, for example, carry on writing this essay indefinitely, except for the fact that I’m reet jiggered, so I won’t.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.