Which Word Wednesday: Deprecate vs. Depreciate

By July 13, 2011 language No Comments

The New York Times runs an article titled “Words We Love Too Much,” which highlights certain words that are being used and used and used again in NYT articles. I find it fascinating to see how a word like kerfuffle went from one use in 1990 to 12 uses in 2011.

This series shows how we tend to reuse and recycle interesting words we hear or read. And that’s fine, except when those words are misused, because then we pass on our bad habits for others to pick up and spread about.

Today’s Which Word Wednesday match-up shows how our tendency to reuse a common word or phrase can cause us all to stumble. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the phrase “self-deprecating humor” to describe how we belittle ourselves to garner a laugh or gain sympathy. Everyone I know uses it in this way too.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered we’ve been wrong. We’ve been recycling this phrase and using it improperly. Who knew? I didn’t. But Rod Evans explains it in his book The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language. Evans tells us, “When people talk of ‘self-deprecating humor,’ they mean ‘self-depreciating humor,’ in which people belittle themselves.”1

The definitions in the Oxford American Dictionary show this same correction:

deprecate :: verb
express disapproval of

depreciate :: verb
diminish in value over a period of time; disparage or belittle (something)

The OAD also notes that self-depreciating was the original phrase, and self-deprecating has come into use in recent times.

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What’s my WWW verdict? Recycling is good for the planet, but dangerous with language. When you hear a new phrase, look it up before adding it to your lexicon.

What’s your verdict? Do you use self-depreciating humor or self-deprecating humor? And are you concerned of the dangers of word recycling? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 70.

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