semantic shift: "shrapnel"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 19 00:23:18 UTC 2010

>>Might as well just reduce it all to grunting and pointing.

I'm ready.

But let's not misunderstand the difference by "prescriptive" and
"descriptive."  Prescriptivism became an ugly word because in the prehistory
of modern linguistics (that's before the publication of Saussure's _Course
in General Linguistics_ in 1916) language study (outside of etymology and
historical reconstruction) was extremely impressionistic. Writers of usage
guides and general discussions often simply assumed that written, formal
English was the "real" language, and everything else was a crude
approximation.  So they prescribed what they liked and decried what they
didn't. They often based their judgments on Latin ("Don't split an
infinitive!" Why not? "Because  infinitives in Classical Latin are one word
and you can't split them! Ha!"), on myopic resistance to any change at all
(even if the change had been going on for decades or centuries), and a
childlike faith in the etymological fallacy (that a word should-must-does
mean what it meant in the earliest documents and that's that).

Without going into all the reasons why these attitudes were short-sighted,
unenlightening, and often just plain wrong:  modern linguists, who were
interested almost exclusively in description and analysis, realized that
linguistic prescriptivism was as scientifically baseless as, let's say,
zoological prescriptivism ("The skunk should not emit a stink!  Those that
do should be ashamed!"). Probably a bad analogy but the best I can do at the

What a purely descriptive linguist ignores is the fact that usage has social
consequences. Prescriptivists may often, even usually, be biased and even
arbitrary,  but any nonlinguist who learned to write carefully and clearly
is likely to be prescriptive at heart. The point, as I've said before, is
not to sound like a lamebrain in the presence of people eager to make such
judgments, i.e., most people. (Ever notice how prescriptive teens get when
somebody uses an uncool word like "tarnation"?)

Who knows whether shrapnel = shard will ever supplant the better established
usage (which supplanted original technical usage long ago)?  My interest was
primarily in getting it noticed just in case it does catch on and to comment
on how weird it was.

If somebody trusts me and Wilson and David that it sounds weird, and
believes that serious people (like us - there's strike one!) will likely
think it the mark of the lamebrain, that somebody will probably avoid it. In
fact for just that reason I prescribe that they avoid it like the plague
But we can't stop all of them.  It's impossible. Try it.

In a nutshell, language change is unpredictable and unstoppable. Some
novelties stick, some do not.  Those that cause confusion will be
compensated for by another change elsewhere. Do we relish the fact that
English will some day become Inglish? I don't, but I can't help it, any more
than tenth-century monks could have stopped Old English from losing most of
its case-ending grammar and turning into Middle English, or Nero could have
kept Latin from turning into Italian.  Vergil would have found Dante's
Italian  incomprehensible and illiterate. That's life.

My unscientific advice to writers: don't sound like a dope.


On Mon, Jan 18, 2010 at 6:25 PM, David A. Daniel <dad at> wrote:

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> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "David A. Daniel" <dad at POKERWIZ.COM>
> Subject:      Re: semantic shift: "shrapnel"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Most changes in language come from sloppy usage, yes? Or is that too
> prescriptive a point of view? The word they want in those reports is
> "shards". Shrapnel comes from weaponry. Or at least it did... up until
> now... when media folks started using it for random pieces of glass or
> metal
> or rock... and therefore the meaning will change... and therefore it won't
> be wrong any more... in fact, it's not even wrong now, since there is no
> right or wrong usage. No? Might as well just reduce it all to grunting and
> pointing. We dumbin' up, folks. A friend of mine from Houston let loose a
> "should of went" the other day. Lady has a master's in Eng Lit (albeit
> probably from a Texas school - I don't rightly recall). I said, "ahem,
> should've gone". She looked at me with her head cocked, frowning, eyes sort
> of looking skyward, as if trying to remember her last grammar class. Then
> she just sort of shook her head and said, "Gone? Yeah? Hmm." She probably
> gets shrapnel from broken glass, too. Sigh...
> ____________________________________________
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> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
> Of
> Garson O'Toole
> Sent: Monday, January 18, 2010 8:59 PM
> Subject: Re: semantic shift: "shrapnel"
> Below is another example of the semantic shift of the word shrapnel in
> a discussion of the movie Earthquake from 1998:
> Citation: 1998, Hollywood's Revolutionary Decade by Charles Champlin,
> Page 95. (Google Books snippet view; so I am not certain of the full
> context.)
> Skyscrapers crumble in rains of plate-glass shrapnel. The Hollywood
> Reservoir Dam yields to the aftershocks of a quake measured at an
> unimaginable 10-plus on the Richter scale and three billion gallons of
> water ...
> On Mon, Jan 18, 2010 at 4:05 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> >
> >
> > To me, too.
> >
> > -Wilson
> >
> > On Mon, Jan 18, 2010 at 2:26 PM, Jonathan Lighter
> > <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> >>
> >>
> >> CNN reported this morning that Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in Haiti, operated on a
> >> "12-year-old girl with shrapnel in her brain."
> >>
> >> Much later CNN identified the "shrapnel" as "a small piece of concrete."
> >>
> >> Usage note: OED 1989 defines shrapnel (in the broad and now usual sense)
> as
> >> "fragments from shells or bomb."  The extension to bits of metal hurled
> out
> >> in any kind of explosion (say, that of a grain elevator) would also seem
> >> normal to me, though clearly "literary."  CNN, however,  is using the
> >> word with no suggestion of metal or explosion, and this seems to me very
> >> strange.
> >>
> >> JL
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