May 10, 2006

Depreciate and deprecate: stay out of it

Furious altercations down the hall from the water cooler in One Language Log Plaza today. Nunberg was shouting, red-faced: "Doctor Johnson's vocabulary was good enough for him and it's good enough for me!" Several younger staffers were arguing with him: "You gotta move with the times!" Then somebody said, "For heaven's sake, there's only one letter different," and everybody turned and started shouting at once. Should Nunberg have used "depreciate" to mean "to lower in estimation or esteem" (the first meaning in the Webster entry), i.e., "lower the value of by expressing the opposite of appreciation for", hence roughly what "denigrate" or "deprecate" would mean? He did, in this post. And he meant it; it wasn't a typo. And the dictionaries back him up: the word can mean that. Yet a proofreader wrote to Nunberg saying he had a ROTFL moment when he saw it... Well, I don't know. I stayed well away from the whole rowdy scene. I've seen this kind of word-quarrel spiral down into violence, with men dashing glasses of chardonnay in each other's faces. One time I saw young Bakovic and Beaver actually come to blows over an adverb. We care about language here at Language Log. You might want to look up depreciate and deprecate. Their meanings are very close, yet their etymologies are quite different (the first from the Latin pret- root meaning "price", the second from the Latin prec- root meaning "pray"). Did Nunberg pick the right one? Maybe, maybe not. But I'm staying out of it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 10, 2006 09:25 AM