semantic drift "officer," "avoid"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sun Nov 23 17:15:35 UTC 2008

On Nov 23, 2008, at 7:34 AM, Jon Lighter wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
> Subject:      Re: semantic drift "officer," "avoid"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> ... from today's Fox and Friends: "...hoping to avoid the Big Three
> auto makers from having to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy."
> I've long heard "avoid" where "prevent" would make better sense, but
> the effect on syntax in this case is striking.

here are some similar examples:

   ... whenever possible, to count any undefined transfer credits
towards the Bachelor of Science requirements to avoid students from
having to unnecessarily take additional courses to qualify for

   In addition, this will avoid ES&S from having to issue contrary
instructions to Iron Mountain to prohibit the release of the InkaVote
Plus voting system ...

   answer the telephone to avoid others from having to interrupt their
work ...

   To avoid others from having to perform this task by hand, you can
create your very own snippet extension, which will automatically
install them into the ...

   Spam checks your messages to avoid them from being caught in spam

   ... out of the reach of children to avoid them from swallowing or
inhaling small pieces, and avoid trimmings that resemble candy or ...

this might be a simple extension of "avoid" to the V NP from VPing
pattern of "prevent" and "keep", on the basis of their semantic
similarity.  but before Jerry Cohen gets to this, i'll point out that
it could have originated in syntactic blending -- of that pattern with
the V NP('s) VPing pattern ("to avoid others(') having to interrupt
their work", "to avoid them swallowing or inhaling small pieces",
etc.).  but there are so many examples that it's hard to see each of
them as an inadvertent error; perhaps inadvertent blendings were the
germ, but it seems clear that a fair number of people now have simply
added "avoid" to the "prevent"/"keep" class.

this extension has some semantic motivation: the "from" in the pattern
reinforces the aversive semantics of "avoid".


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