One of the interesting aspects of the English language is that it is defined not by experts, but by its users. Ultimately, there is no right way or wrong way to speak English; instead there is simply the way it is spoken. The Oxford English Dictionary is usually regarded as the definitive authority on the English language, but this is what they say on the subject:
Is there an official committee which regulates the English language, like the Académie française does for French?
No, there never has been any group or body with this authority, and it is not the purpose of the Oxford English Dictionary Department to act in this way.
How do you decide if a new word should go in an Oxford dictionary?
We conduct a Reading Programme to collect examples of words in use. If we have enough examples to show that a word has genuinely achieved currency, then we add it to our list of candidates for inclusion, and the editors research its usage and draft an entry. The general rule of thumb for the OED is that any word can be included which appears five times, in five different printed sources, over a period of five years.
The basic gist is this: if enough people start using a word “wrongly”, that is to mean something that it doesn’t actually mean, then eventually the OED will recognise that and ammend the meaning to include the new usage. Purists and pedants can cry all they like, but if the masses are wrong then the wrong becomes right. And yes, before you ask, I am one of those purist pedants who cries when I perceive words as being misused. And yes, I do hate textspeak. Why do you ask?
Anyhow, it’s something of a hobby of mine to think up words so threatened, so I thought I’d start a blog feature where I predict words who are at risk of having their meaning changed to reflect a current, arguably, incorrect usage. Endangered words, as it were.
And the first word? Well it’s two actually, Fiancé and Fiancée. Here’s some standard definitions I just looked up:
n. a man engaged to be married; a man to whom a woman is engaged.
n. a woman engaged to be married; a woman to whom a man is engaged.
And if you look up “engaged” you get:
pledged to be married; betrothed: an engaged couple.
i.e. Your Fiancé or Fiancée is someone you intend to get married to. The man asked, “Will you marry me?” and the woman replied, “Yes!” If you didn’t want to get married, then the last thing you would do is ask someone to marry you, right? The only reason, historically, for a deplay between engagement and marriage was because weddings and homes had to be arranged, and perhaps even saved up for.
But that’s not how it’s used now, is it? Here are some examples:
London, Dec 20 (IANS) British actress Rachel Weisz’s fiancé for three years, director Darren Aronofsky, has no plans of marrying her as he insists they are “waiting for something special” to happen before they tie the knot.
Nicole Richie isn’t in a rush to walk down the aisle. The socialite is too busy preparing for the birth of her second child to plan her wedding to Good Charlotte rocker fiancé Joel Madden, 30. ‘Of course,’ she tells chat show host Larry King. ‘When I was a little girl, you dream about getting married, and that is definitely a dream of mine one day.’
‘Transformers’ star Megan Fox has no plans to marry her fiance Brian Austin Green despite recently reviving their engagement.
Maggie Gyllenhaal hates watching her fiance strip on screen… Maggie also says she and Peter – who have a 21-month-old daughter Ramona together – have no plans to marry in the near future.
That’s just a few, but you see a lot more in the press, the classic ones being Premier League footballers on £50,000 a week who can spend years with their “Fiancées”, often having multiple children with them, and yet still not manage to get round to marrying them. What are they waiting for? Saving up for the wedding? Can’t find any venues free?
I mean, how does that conversation go?
Him: Darling, will you marry me?
Her: Yes! Yes! How about next June?
Her: How about we get married next June?
Him: Married? I don’t want to get married. I’m only twenty-three! I’m far too young to be getting married!
The point here is that we don’t have a word to describe that state that is more serious than dating and where you are more than boyfriend and girlfriend, but where you aren’t yet ready to get married. I’m convinced that some couples nowadays will have the following conversation:
Him: Darling, would you like to get engaged?
And I think dictionary usage will catch up on this. I predict that before long, the definition will be something like:
1. n. a man engaged to be married; a man to whom a woman is engaged.
2. n. a man with whom a woman is in a serious and committed relationship.
Oh well. Not a lot we can do about it.