Mike left a comment on yesterday's post with a link to one of his own posts about how -sicle, as in Popsicle, became a productive morpheme--in layman's terms, attached itself to other words to form combinations that mean "X on a stick." (Dreamsicle, Creamsicle, etc. Oh, and corpsicle: a body frozen in the hope of revivification.) This despite the fact that -sicle was originally shortened from icicle, and icicles in the wild do not necessarily contain sticks.
The title of Mike's post is "Erstwhile Trademarks¹," which started me thinking about how frequently "erstwhile" is misused.
Erstwhile means former (adjective) or formerly (adverb); it's a blend of erst, an Old English word meaning "once" or "long ago" that's familiar to crossword solvers; and while, meaning "during" or "at that time." But that's not how many people use it.
I used to have a very nice client who, while we were sitting in the same room, would refer to me admiringly as "our erstwhile copywriter." He did this more than once, apparently ignoring my stricken look. (Had I been fired?) Eventually I figured it out: he thought erstwhile meant esteemed.
And he's far from alone. A cursory (hasty, hurried, superficial) search revealed quite a few complaints about the misuse. Here's what the Australian linguist Ruth Wajnryb, who says she's often invited to settle usage disputes, has to say:
The latest contretemps is between a pair of elderly, well-educated gentlemen disputing the meaning of "erstwhile". I'll call them Elderly Gentleman 1 (EG1) and Elderly Gentleman 2 (EG2). EG1 is upset that EG2 insists on using erstwhile to mean "esteemed", "stalwart", "dependable", "worthy", even "wise". For EG2, it's a laudatory adjective: he'll comfortably refer to a staff member as "erstwhile", intending the word to be taken as public praise.
EG1 protests furiously. Erstwhile means "prior" or "former", and there's no shortage of authoritative sources to support him. As an adverb, erstwhile has been part of English since the 16th century, formed from two much older words. The adjective joined about 1900. EG1 argues, rightly, that referring to an employee as "erstwhile" would suggest that the employment is over.
EG2 dismisses EG1's evidence. He disputes EG1's notion that people produce and receive words according to an unstated consensus about meaning. EG1 is outraged: an individual cannot simply take it upon himself, crusade-style, to make a word mean what he wants it to mean. But EG2 argues that word meanings aren't fixed in concrete. "Terrific" and "naughty" didn't always mean what they mean today.
If EG2 sounds familiar, it might be the echoes of Humpty Dumpty's exchange with Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
Humpty is wrong, of course, as is EG2. You cannot make a word mean whatever you want it to mean - that is, if you wish to be understood. Usage does not determine correctness. If a person starts swapping labels ("cats" for "dogs" and vice versa), all that will happen in the short term is confusion. The reductio ad absurdum is chaotic unintelligibility.
I'm on Ms. Wajnryb's side. In the short term, and as long as there's a likelihood of confusion--as there was when my client called me "erstwhile"--I want to stick to traditional definitions. And suggest three little words to my (yes!) erstwhile client and others like him: use a dictionary.
Is it possible that erstwhile for esteemed results from a contextual misunderstanding? That was the case for Jed Hartman:
I assumed that "my erstwhile colleague" (the phrase I usually heard the word in) meant "my esteemed colleague," but it really means "my former colleague." I wasn't alone in this misunderstanding; many people misuse this word.
(One of Jed's commenters says that he she always thought erstwhile meant ersatz--a German loan word meaning fake. Again, a dictionary can be ever so helpful in sorting these things out. Try it yourself!)
Or maybe erstwhile just has that hifalutin tone that self-important people like to assume. Which brings me back to penultimate, one of the subjects of Monday's musings.
In a column mostly about the misuse of erstwhile, Barbara Frederickson wrote recently in TampaBay.com that penultimate is also frequently misued:
[I]t isn't the pinnacle of the ultimate; it's the next-to-last item, as in "she reached her pinnacle in the penultimate song."
I admit it hadn't occurred to me that misusers of penultimate were thinking about pinnacles. (Obviously that's because, being a native speaker of pure, wholly unaccented California English--oh, go ahead and scoff--I clearly distinguish between pen and pin, unlike some of my fellow citizens in Flyoverland.) But it does make sense in a way. It's wrong, but it's logical and rather creative.
¹ By the way, Popsicle is the furthest thing from an erstwhile trademark: it is very much alive, and no doubt sturdily defended by its owner, Unilever.