Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #3


Here's David Aaronovitch, in a book review in yesterday's Times: "This question [of why people dogmatically stick to errors] becomes even more poignant when you consider what happened long after Galileo's death."

Whoa, there. Hold on a minute, Dave. Let's back up. Poignant? What do you mean? I'll answer my own question. By "poignant" in this case Aaronovitch clearly means something like relevant, important or on-target – instead of the traditional meaning of the word, which is "piercingly sad" (from the French word for dagger: "poignard"). But the traditional meaning is withering away before our eyes. More and more writers are now using it in Aaronovitch's sense. Dictionaries do not yet recognise this new usage but it surely can't be long before they do so. But what is the reason for this change?

I think there are two. One is that "poignant" is (or was) a slightly unusual word, not used often enough for its original sense to be kept in good repair. The less often a word is used, the vaguer it's possible to be about its meaning. The second reason is the similarity in sound between "poignant" and "point". We don't actually have a convenient single word that means "to the point" but it would be useful to have one – and here's "poignant", under-used and with the right sort of sound-association, waiting in the wings, so to speak.

It is clear that the pace of change is accelerating. And the new sense of "poignant" is more useful, suitable to more contexts than the old one, so it gets more outings. I expect I will end up by adopting the new usage myself one day. But not yet. I still have an affection for the old meaning and watching it slowly die is – well, poignant.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.