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Think Twice - two times!

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Think twice (er “Two times”)

What’s happening to the word “twice”? Is it being systematically erased from our language?

We have lots of words for describing small numbers:

One, Two, Three

First, Second, Third

Uni-, Bi-, Tri-

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

Single, Pair, Triplet

Once, Twice, Thrice.

So why is “Twice” bothering me? Let’s see!

It’s well known that language changes over time. We’ve all seen new words appear and old words fall from favor. The meaning of some words shift very gradually, while others change meaning in a matter of a year or two. During my lifetime, we’ve lost “frock” (a ladies dress) we gained “byte” (a group of eight zeroes and ones), we found the meaning of “gay” shift from “happy” to “homosexual”. The word “literally” has started to mean the complete opposite of it’s traditional meaning (as in “I literally died of laughter when she said that!”).

None of this is particularly new — English has gained, lost and morphed words at a phenomenal rate, and that’s part of the joy of it. We don’t want it to be ruled with a rod of iron as the Academie Francaise does with French (http://www.academie-francaise.fr/). Most french people describe how they leave their cars with the handy anglophone word “parking” — but the Academie Francaise says that one must correctly say “Parc de stationnement” and treats “parking” as a pollution of the language that must be staunchly eliminated. So, yeah — English changes.

“Once, Twice, Three times a lady.”

I’ve recently become interested in the words “Once”, “Twice” and “Thrice”.

It’s notable that “Thrice” has almost completely fallen out of common usage (except in India, where it’s still widely used). On the other hand, “Once” is firmly embedded in our daily vocabulary. But “Twice” is on the cusp of disappearing — and it’s happening right now, before our very eyes, and with amazing speed.

The place I saw it happening first was maybe two or three years ago in TV adverts “NEW! IMPROVED! And with two times as many anti-oxidants!”. This grates on my ear, and it’s sounds tortuous and long-winded compared to “twice as many”. But once you start listening for it, you’ll find it everywhere in that specific realm of human communication where people are trying to sell you stuff.

Now I’m starting to hear it in local news reports, both on TV and in Radio — and in more and more places. I don’t think I’ve heard the word “twice” in a TV advert for at least a year.

In face-to-face speech, or in email or tweets, I don’t see “twice” being displaced by “two times” at all, which suggests that the general population are not yet assimilating the change, but I’m fairly sure it’s coming.

What’s happening to “twice”?

Using “twice” always shortens and simplifies a sentence — it’s not a word that’s hard to spell or pronounce — it’s not easily confused with other words that sound similar — so why is it vanishing?

Because it happened in many TV adverts at the same time, it’s my suspicion that the ‘style guide’ for some major advertising agency was changed — and that set the ball rolling. I have no evidence for that — but it’s hard to imagine another reason.

Twice” does not appear in Ogdens Basic English word list (http://ogden.basic-english.org/words.html), but it does appear in the British National Corpus (BNC1) list of basic vocabulary that’s commonly used as the basis of Simple English. So I wonder whether these copy writers have decided to make their adverts comprehensible to the least able English speakers by choosing the Ogden vocabulary as the basis for their work.

That would be an understandable commercial decision, but a profoundly sad one. I can take the loss and meaning-shift of a few words here and there — but the wholesale dumbing down of the vocabulary would be a horrible thing.

If it were only TV adverts that were replacing “twice”, then it wouldn’t be so bad — but if it’s spreading beyond there, should we expect to have news reports showing up with 1000 word vocabulary constraints? I surely hope not.

Vocabulary matters more than we generally imagine. The people of northern Namibia have distinct words for different shades of green — and people who speak their language perform better at certain color recognition tests than English speakers (http://boingboing.net/2011/08/12/how-language-affects-color-perception.html). A few other languages have just one word that encompasses the colors that we know as blue and green — and speakers of those languages do worse than English speakers at color recognition tests.

So dumbing down our vocabulary literally makes our brains less capable, and if we all revert to a 1000 word vocabulary, we’re going to do far less well as a species.

Conclusion:

In the end, I don’t really care what happens to “twice” — but if it’s happening because some people think it’s better to dumb down language than to encourage people to expand their vocabularies by using richer English, then maybe the trend needs to be resisted.

 

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