The Power Of Language – ‘Vile’

by LimebirdCat

I was recently engaged in a discussion (not an argument, I hasten to add) on Twitter with a fellow language enthusiast, although her main field of interest is science. We were discussing the impact and perception of one particular word whose over use had become something of an annoyance to her: vile.

To me, as a writer, I find the word vile particularly powerful and meaningful. I generally don’t use it in everyday speech, unless I am describing a principally awful situation or incident. I disagree with using words outside of their context too much.

In recent times, the overuse of the word vile has led to a sort of misconception of it and, when it has been thought about and analysed, it would appear people are viewing one small area of the word’s entire functionality.

A word has many impacts. The actual physical way you say it – the way your tongue, teeth and the rest of your biological vocal equipment say the word itself, can lead to a perception of the word.

So, in the case of the word vile, my fellow debater pointed out that it had a soft sound, akin to velvet, veil etc. It isn’t coming from your throat, giving you a guttural sound or from your alveolar ridge, giving you a slightly sharper sound. It comes from your teeth and your lips creating something of a plosive, occlusive stop and softening it.

Because of this, it was suggested that the word belongs to a crowd of disdainful, prissy, fan waving do-gooders, pronouncing their mock horror at the world without substance or understanding.

However, the word vile does not hold those connotations for me. I see the physical enunciation of the word and can see the point of view of my debater, however, the understated manner in which this word is born from our human lips adds to its impact. There is no overstatedness to it… it is a word of hushed horror for me. I cannot help but pull a face of disbelief or revulsion when using it – there is no fan or smelling salts in sight.

According to the 1985 edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary, the word ‘vile’ means: “morally base, depraved, shameful, abject, disgusting”. That is the contemporary meaning though. It has its roots in the Latin ‘vilis’, meaning ‘cheap, inexpensive, base, worthless’. It then advanced into the middle English and lost two letters to become simply ‘vil’. It found its way into modern language eventually, gaining the ‘e’ at the end and taking on the meaning of what is essentially terrible in its most heinous sense.

It forms the anagram of ‘evil’, which for me, is closer to its core meaning.

She alluded to it being archaic and being more evocative of the regency era (the fan-wafting for example). If you look at written word trends (kindly supplied to me by Google N Words for these purposes), it is clear that this word is on the way back after a steady decline. The word vile was used mostly in the early part of the 19th century and peaked in around 1810 – nicely aligning itself to the idea the regency personification my debater used. However, after a steady decline right into the 20th century, the word regained momentum and popularity. After a steady period of use in the 1990’s, it has begun to be used more and more in writing. Between 2000 and 2008, the word has enjoyed an steady rise in popularity.

This of course says a lot about fashion and how words can come back into style and use. The idea that the word belongs to frightfully delicate ladies of two centuries ago, tells me that people are still reconciling with the fact that the word is on its way back into popular use. Are people bringing the word back for the right reasons and in the right way though?

I do not believe for one moment that my fellow debater was incorrect at all – I actually find it fascinating to see what other people think of words and language in general. How interesting and rich the English language is and how fortunate we as writers are to be able to use it. I am not fluent in any other language than English, and therefore assume that all other languages are as rich and as interesting as my own.

It does however, flag up the more serious problem of language erosion and what I call, ‘negative language reclamation’. Words do change their meanings over time, which is natural evolution to be sure. However, when a word becomes over used, it can be eroded too quickly and against the flow of what is perhaps seen as natural evolution.

Sometimes this can be good. You can take a negative word used as a derogatory term and rob it of insult by embracing it and even injecting a sense of humorous irony to it. Many groups of people who have sadly been subjected to forms of bigotry have taken the words meant by others to hurt them and changed them into an inoffensive, every day term.  Taking the word back from the mouths of the cruel and the idiotic is a fantastic and laudable use of language evolution and reclamation.

Yet when people with a perhaps limited vocabulary use the same word over and over, it can lose its impact. For a word like ‘vile’, I find that quite uncomfortable. It is a great word for use in genres like horror for example – “The vile stench of putrification hung heavily in the midnight air”. That sentence wouldn’t be so impactful, in my view, without ‘vile’ as the adjective, setting up the sentence.

The lady with whom I briefly debated, was looking at the word more from a media point of view i.e. newspapers, blogs and Twitter. Yet, as a writer of fiction, I view the word in a completely different way. It holds so much more value than what a news item or opinion piece has to bleat about. It has more meaning than the way it is said. It has more meaning than even its dictionary definition. It is a beautiful gem that I work with, a tool if you will that I use in sculpting my work. I try not to keep using the same words over and over, because as writers we know that that irritates readers unless it serves a purpose.

The media every two minutes saying something is ‘vile’ will end up desensitising the reader to the word and making it appear toothless and weak, when really, I find it a powerful word. If the media trend continues, it will become every-day and indeed and prissy; the very epitaph of banal.

As writers, this trend tell us so much. It tells us how language is evolving and perceived by the wider world. It does not, however, mean we must align ourselves with this. At all. It isn’t a bullying measure that we should be forced into accepting because of a lazy media. It is something of a concern for us to work against if we choose.

Language is a precious freedom that should never be taken for granted or not seen as a full picture, as opposed to viewing from a tiny aperture. Each word has had a long journey to get into our lexis, some spending thousands of years doing so. It would be reckless to bin them or change our ideas about them simply because of some sort of paradigm shift instigated by the unimaginative.

Words are your tools and you, the writer, are the channel. Treasure them and use them wisely and respectfully.

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15 Comments to “The Power Of Language – ‘Vile’”

  1. Limebird Cat, I feel the same way about “Vile”…I definitely associate with “evil” and it gives me the shivers just hearing it. It would be a shame to see it become a toothless word…Progress (or evolution) is not always for the better!

    • Thanks for reading the post 🙂 I’m glad there is another person out there who agrees with how I feel about the word vile too!

  2. Thank you for pointing out that “vile” also forms an anagram for “evil.” That’s rather intriguing! Words often gain traction in the lexicon when they are picked up in the media and repeated …. and repeated. This was a rather long post about a rather short word, which is a commentary itself on the impact of a single “four-letter” word 🙂

    • The length of the post certainly does symbolise my love of language and my sadness at its decline in certain areas. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. I live in the US and have to say that I hardly ever hear that word, so it must be more popular in Britain.
    BTW, sorry to point this out but, if you’re interested in correct word usage, you might want lose ‘annunciation’ and use ‘enunciation’ instead…

    • Thanks for reading my post and commenting. I find that also very intriguing too – the fact that a word is more popular in one part of the English speaking word, rather than the other. It certainly demonstrates how language does and does not physically travel and what happens to it during the journey. Thank you for the correction too. When I re-read this earlier today, I noticed one or two other grammatical nasties lurking about in the above meanderings. No matter how often you re-read and edit something, you always seem to miss things! C’est la vie

  4. I agree with most everything you said here. Language changes over time because it’s really a living thing. Good words become degraded and smutty, and vice verse, smutty words lose their punch through overuse. But the word I really am sad about is “gay.” When my grandmother was young (this was in the 1890s), gay was a word with lovely, innocent connotations – no sexual implications at all. She would speak of a dance she went to and say, “We had a gay old time!” The word meant simply happy, merry, joyous. Today, if you try to use it that way, as for example, “The boys had a gay time at the dance,” people would snicker. Words can carry more than one connotation, but in this case the newer meaning is winning out and we’re losing a beautiful word. (Please believe that this not a condemnation of “gay” people – just an expression of regret about the word that came into use as a designation.)

    • Thank you for reading and taking the time to reply. I do understand what you mean by the changing of words, which almost makes them ‘off limits’ from their original usage, which certainly can be frustrating, yet fascinating at the same time when we see how words are morphed and changed for social or behavioural purposes. Thank you for giving a really good example here. The word ‘gay’ is one of my personal favourites linguistically and from a social evolutionary perspective. It’s one of those words I’d love to analyse under a microscope and understand it better.

  5. This is a well-thought-out post, that raises many details I would otherwise have missed. Thank you.

  6. I agree with YOU. Over use and the word will lose it’s standing in the world of horror.

  7. I agree – overuse of any word (but particularly adjectives, it seems) devalues its meaning. While “vile” isn’t as abused here (USA), I find the rule applies with the prolific use of “epic” — which at times seems to be the only adjective available.

    • I’m really pleased you pointed out ‘epic’! I am very guilty for overusing it in speech, I must say. However, in writing, I very rarely ever use it. In colloquial speech, it appears to have replaced ‘awesome’, ‘cool’ and ‘amazing’. It is a good example, at least from my personal perspective, of a word that is being changed and used differently in speech and writing. The implications of one could certainly effect the other. Thanks for your comment 🙂

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