All languages have a store of proverbs and similar sayings, Russian, Japanese, and English (my three “native” tongues) having numerically the greatest ones. These formulaic utterances are commonly stored in the linguistic data banks of users, to be recalled, sometimes silently, when the occasion prompts them. Their typically paronomastic form (“A stitch in time saves nine”) enhances the thought encapsulated in them and makes them easier to remember.
Thus it was last week, when Y-H-B attended the Charles S. Peirce International Centennial Congress at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (cf. the account by Spencer Case, “The Man With a Kink in His Brain,” www.nationalreview.com, July 21, 2014), that the perfusion of bearded men among the attendees caused the Latin proverb, “Barba non facit philosophum” (‘A beard does not a philosopher make’), to insinuate itself into his brain during all four days of the gathering. The story of the origin of this saying includes an animadversion not only on the concerned individual’s facial hair but on his beggarly attire. Needless to say, in this day and age when academics––let alone philosophers––have succumbed to the general impulse to dress informally, the attendees of the male persuasion in Lowell strove mightily, not only to explicate Peirce’s cast of mind but to replicate his (hirsute) physiognomy. One can only wonder whether the Latin proverb ever gave them pause.
In contemporary media language, an increasingly frequent phenomenon is the misapplication of the word term when what is meant is phrase. This was exemplified in full by a discussion this morning on the NPR program Morning Edition that explored how Americans of a certain age wish to refer to themselves (as well as hear themselves referred to). In assessing phrases like older adult and senior citizen, the discussants mistakenly kept using the word term instead of phrase.
This error evidently derives from the mindless transference of the plurale tantum terms––as in phrases like on good terms with, terms of an agreement, etc.––to the designation of the singular term, where the latter, strictly speaking, consists of a single word and not more than one. Lamentably, this error has now been legitimated as standard usage in dictionaries, as reflected, for example, in the following definition: ‘a word or group of words designating something, especially in a particular field, as atom in physics, quietism in theology, adze in carpentry, or district leader [sic!] in politics’ (Dictionary.com).
The historical process exemplified by what started as an error needs to be taken account of in describing the range of factors underlying linguistic change. All living languages, wherever they are spoken, inevitably include examples that owe their origins to failures of thought and other species of misinterpretation but become canonized over time as correct by speakers who have either lost the feeling of their erroneousness or been born at a stage of the language when the transition is largely complete.