This is sad. Every day and all around us perfectly healthy words are falling ill. Words that were once strong and big shouldered, words that were athletic and could carry enormous weight are being slowly eaten up by a quiet but deadly disease.
Let’s meet one of these brave victims. He goes by…
This once proud word could claim such definitions as
- to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences
- to make a distinction between one object and another
- to use good judgment
- (and it’s primary definition from Webster’s Seventh Collegiate) to mark or perceive the distinguishing or peculiar features of
It even enjoyed the company of synonyms like DISTINGUISH, DISCERN, EVALUATE, and DIFFERENTIATE.
But the word we once knew is unrecognizable today. Its definition has been reduced to one, narrow application that goes like this: to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from other people or groups.
That’s all the meaning it can carry now.
It suffers from what linguists are calling Single Situational Usage Disorder, or SSUD. And the really sad thing about SSUD is that it’s avoidable.
Here are a few preventatives:
1. In the case of discriminate, adverbs might have prevented SSUD; simple, household words like superficially, unfairly, unwisely, or prematurely, when correctly used as modifiers, would have helped it retain its wide range of meaning.
2. Meaningful context might have had the same effect: “The employer was fined for making gender-based distinctions in employee pay.” Here the word discriminate was not even necessary. The context said it all.
3. Finally, a new word could have been coined for the situation; in fact, I’ll propose one now: malabrigate; from the latin malus, meaning bad; arbitratus, meaning will or decision; and genus, meaning race or people group; noun form - malabrigation. You make a bad decision based on ethnicity, you’ve just malabrigated. If someone of another race doesn’t like the way you look at them, they can point and say, malabrigation! The situation would be served accurately with a precise word, and discriminate could go on and live a full and healthy life.
I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if we could say to our kids when they eat paste or buy a Bieber download “Don’t you ever DISCRIMINATE!?” without them thinking we’ve called them a bad name?
If you care at all about words, you’ll do your part and use the whole range of definitions.