Dot Wordsworth

Dot’s irritated that language changes.

Dot's irritated that language changes.

Much to my annoyance, and yours, I know, language changes. Thus Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary we celebrate with its author’s 300th birthday this week, defined urinator as ‘a diver; one who searches under water’. Charles II had a urinator of his own, as a letter by Robert Boyle indicates: ‘His majesty’s urinator, Mr Curtis, published in the Gazette, how he had practised.’

That example of changed meaning is given by David Nokes in his new life of Johnson. He took it, with acknowledgments, from the agreeable Henry Hitchings, who wrote Dr Johnson’s Dictionary in 2005. Actually, urinator in that sense was already obsolescent in Johnson’s day. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully notes that it was ‘in frequent use’ from about 1655 to 1685. It is merely a Latin word used in English. It could also, then as now, be used in the sense of ‘one who makes water’, which, if you think about it, one seldom does now.

The word urine was perfectly familiar in Johnson’s day, in the sense ‘piss’ (a word found in the Bible eight times). Urinator, in the sense ‘diver’, could exist unconfused with its homonym, just as we never seriously confuse tart, ‘a baked pastry’, and tart, ‘a prostitute’ (a sense recorded in the respectable Morning Post in 1887). But we are certainly more shy of double meanings — we can scarcely even use, of the bird, the word cock.

All this is intended to illustrate the sort of change in meaning that annoys no one. The sort that does annoy us is ‘improper’ accommodation of words, such as haver to mean ‘hesitate’ or disinterested to mean ‘uninterested’.

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