An Example Of English Evolution

Warning: long, boring post of dubious value ahead. Proceed with care.

One of my interests is studying languages – English in particular. I love reading Language Log every day, and there are a few other language-related links in my Blogs I Read article.

Another totally unrelated blog that I read – in fact, the very blog that got me hooked on reading blogs in the first place – is Raymond Chen’s Old New Thing. Raymond is believed to be the best programmer in the world by at least one person, and his blog is one of the highest-quality tech blogs out there.

When those worlds collide, it’s too good to resist thinking/blogging about. In a recent article of his dealing with thread affinity of user interface objects, Raymond offers the following advice:

Leaving junk behind to be cleaned up is just plain sloppy. It suggests that your program is too lazy (or stupid) to keep track of its own resources and has abdicated this to the safety net. It’s like throwing your clothes on the floor because you know your mother will eventually come by to pick it up and put it away.

He is, of course, absolutely right on the programming principle, and it applies to kernel-mode development equally well as to the window management work Raymond was discussing. But the thing that caught my eye was his use of abdicate. You can abdicate intransitively – “King Lear abdicated at the beginning of the play” – or transitively – “King Lear abdicated his throne”, but my Oxford American Dictionary that came installed on my Mac doesn’t list any senses that take an indirect object – “…and has abdicated this to the safety net.” My American Heritage Dictionary, 4e is no help either. Even The Columbia Guide To Standard American English lacks any reference to abdicate with an indirect object in its article discussing the word.

Google turns up 11,800 hits on the phrase abdicate to, compared with 813,000 results for simply abdicate, and some are not representative of an indirect object construction. Then again, the indirect object often comes after the direct object, as in “abdicate the throne to his brother”, which that query doesn’t catch. Furthermore, The Columbia World of Quotations has this 1993quote from Melinda M. Marshall:

For the mother who has opted to stay home, the question remains: Having perfected her role as a caretaker, can she abdicate control to less practiced individuals? Having put all her identity eggs in one basket, can she hand over the basket freely? Having put aside her own ambitions, can she resist imposing them on her children? And having set one example, can she teach another?

So, this construction is obviously in use, and perhaps in common use. Even if it weren’t, it strikes me[1] as exactly the kind of evolution that would be likely to occur. Regardless, it’s an interesting case of a word gaining a new sense before the dictionaries and usage manuals catch on.

[1] It should be noted that I have no right to hold this opinion, such as, for example, any actual training in linguistics. Take with a grain of salt.

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