The Syntax of Slander

24 11 2011

I refuse to believe that lexicographers don’t have a sense of humour. Having recently looked up the word “malignity” in the Oxford American Dictionary, the better to assure myself that it was really a word (though what it could be if it were not a word, I don’t know), I was pleased to note the following sagely advice:

The Right Word
Do you want to ruin someone’s life? You can malign someone, which is to say or write something evil without necessarily lying (: she was maligned for her past association with radical causes).
To calumniate is to make false and malicious statements about someone; the word often implies that you have seriously damaged that person’s good name (: after leaving his job, he spent most of his time calumniating and ridiculing his former boss).
To defame is to cause actual injury to someone’s good name or reputation (: he defamed her by accusing her of being a spy).
If you don’t mind risking a lawsuit, you can libel the person, which is to write or print something that defames him or her (: the tabloid libeled the celebrity and ended up paying the price).
Slander, which is to defame someone orally, is seldom a basis for court action but can nevertheless cause injury to someone’s reputation (: after a loud and very public argument, she accused him of slandering her).
If all else fails, you can vilify the person, which is to engage in abusive name-calling (: even though he was found innocent by the jury, he was vilified by his neighbors).

It’s always good to know that I have options. In the meantime, there is an interesting discussion ensuing between two respectable linguists at Language Log. Geoffrey Pullum says that the OED’s Word of the Year should actually be a word for a change, and filed his post under “Ignorance of Linguistics”. Ben Zimmer, who is the chair of the New Words Committee at the American Dialect Society, strongly disagrees with him, but filed his post under a friendlier file name and left the comments open. So far I see nothing malignant, calumniating, defaming, slanderous nor vilifying, but you never know with these people. Linguists. You really don’t want to upset them.




2 responses

25 11 2011
Daniel Lipman Lowbeer

Silly linguists. Not even cunning.

26 11 2011

I like how practical the entry is, defining subtle differences between words that might otherwise be confused. To libel isn’t always done in writing, though. It betrays that origin, and seems to have taken this meaning around the time of printing and pamphleteers, but has historically been used for any defamation resembling that. The adjective ‘libelous’ must have encouraged the metaphorical use? Also, vilifying refers more broadly to kinds of degrading that aren’t necessarily name-calling.

It’s still an interesting post; I’ve never thought about the nuances of malignity before, and would have used the terms interchangeably. One of the best thing about words is how they take significance from the history and experiences they’ve been used for before, as far as each hearer is aware of those.

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