New Words for Old by Philip Howard
An excerpt from the book New Words for Old by Philip Howard a look at the evolution of words in the English language such as prestigious.
NEW WORDS FOR OLD by Philip Howard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
About the Book: It is perhaps apocryphal that an English king once called Westminster Abbey "awful, pompous, and artificial." But it is not surprising, for these were once words of high praise. Subtitled "a survey of misused, vogue, and cliche words," this book is about the evolution of the English language and, mostly, about the hill down which it is going.
From the Book:
Prestigious: . . .The original meaning of prestige, the unwed father of the illegitimate prestigious, is: "An illusion, conjuring-trick, deception." It came into English by way of French, from the Latin praestigiae, juggler's tricks. The quickness of the juggler's hand was able praestringere oculos: to blindfold or dazzle the eyes of his audience. During the nineteenth century prestige in English acquired its transferred secondary meaning of blinding or dazzling influence; "magic," glamour; influence or reputation derived from previous character, achievements, or associations, or, especially, from past success. For those aware of its derivation prestige retains shady connotations, as if the reputation or influence is illusory and undeserved.
Prestigious is clearly a ragingly fashionable vogue word, intended to impress the reader with the learning and prestige of the man who uses it. Perhaps an age like ours that values prestige and PR more than merit needs the word prestigious, and can make good use of it. A large number of acceptable near-synonyms appear to be available: distinguished, eminent, reputable, important, remarkable, influential, and so on. With any luck the present fashion for prestigious will enjoy its brief fever, and then be seen to be otiose, and so die. But when a new word is moving into the common currency of a language, to point out that it is being used to mean something other than its original meaning can be as profitless as trying to put out a forest fire with a soda siphon.
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