Inflation hits gas, oil, timber and…words

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

It is not just commodities such as oil and timber that are subject to inflation. Words are too. 

Inflation is when the purchasing power of the money we hold falls so with a given amount of currency we can buy less.

Words in one sense are like money. Their value fluctuates and the amount of meaning we can ‘buy’ with them rises or falls.

For example, the word “awesome” started life in the 1500s meaning “inspiring awe or dread”. By the 1960s it had a much weaker, colloquial sense of just “very good”.  Now in order to express the original meaning, we have to use several words, where just one was sufficient before.

This type of semantic shift is known as broadening. Another example is the word “hierarchy”, which used to mean a host of angels, but now means a group of people or things organised into ranks.

There is also broadening’s opposite, narrowing, where a word’s meaning becomes more precise, thus strengthens. For example, “meat” used to mean food of any type.

This inflation and deflation of words is policed by regulators who demand research is based on fact and reason, not hyperbole. The slipperiness of certain words mitigates against their use in research.  

Take the word “disastrous”. In the 1590s it meant “anything that befalls of ruinous or distressing nature”. It can still be applied to serious natural problems such as earthquakes or floods where thousands die, but equally to a politician giving a poorly received speech or a footballer having a bad game. 

Words such as these have lost their descriptive power so much that they should be used with care. If you can equally describe a share price fall of 10% and one of 100% as “disastrous”, it is no longer clear what you are describing.

Analysts that use this word lay themselves open to an accusation of what the regulators call “exaggerated language”. This is using emotive language to get the point across rather than a factual basis. A good supervisory analyst or editor can guide you in how to use such language without leaving the meaning unclear or falling foul of the regulator.