The Gift of Disrespect

The English language is a living thing. It’s constantly changing and adapting to the needs of an equally evolving culture. Every year the various dictionaries include new words. As such it’s probably a fool’s errand to revolt against change. Even so, I must lodge a complaint.

My chagrin is focused on two words: disrespect and gift. In both instances we have old words that are being used in a new office. In both instances, this new office makes the speaker (or writer) sound ignorant.

I’ll start with disrespect. Disrespect can be used as a noun. “He treats his parents with disrespect.” There are other forms. “He treats his parents disrespectfully.” In that example it’s an adverb. “He treats his parents in a disrespectful manner.” In that instance it’s an adjective.

Over the last decade or so, many people have begun to use disrespect as a verb. “He disrespects his parents” or “He disrespected me.” To my ear, this is just wrong. At best, it’s lazy. It has crept out of colloquial speech into formal use. 

The real beauty of language is its precision… words exist because they allow us to frame ideas with very subtle shades of tone and meaning.

Does this new usage convey the same meaning? Yes, it does but it does so at a cost. As above, it makes the speaker sound less intelligent. It undercuts that which might otherwise be a powerful statement about civility and the regard of one person for another.

To be clear, when I am joking or in a moment of linguistic self-deprecation, I might use the word, “ain’t.” It’s the kind of a word that can give a moment of resistance a humorous tilt. “I ain’t gonna do that” (‘gonna’ falls into the same category). While I might say that in a moment of levity, I would never use ‘ain’t’ in formal writing or speech. 

Users of ‘disrespect’ as a verb appear to have no such fetter. An accusation of disrespectful behavior probably warrants a little formality. If it doesn’t, then perhaps the speaker should just keep quiet.

Then there’s the word, “gift.” This is far more cut and dried. Gift is a noun. “She gave me a gift.” Certain people and companies seek to promote its use as a verb. “She gifted me a present.” 

I make a very strong value judgement about people who say things like that. It’s not kind.

This silly perversion of the language leads me to ask what was wrong with “She gave me a present” or “I will give her these flowers”? “Gave” is more economical than “gifted.” Using “gift” for “give” is a dead even exchange. Therefore, I am left to wonder how this usage came to be increasingly common. 

People who commit these two crimes against the language do us all a disservice. The real beauty of language is its precision. We have hundreds of thousands of words in the English language. That many words exist because they allow us to frame ideas with very subtle shades of tone and meaning.

The misuses described above betray that wonderous variety. They are surgery with a machete. They make a beautiful and expressive opportunity so much less than it could be. 

Is this the worst thing people do? Of course it isn’t, but neither does it elevate us.

I understand that our language must adapt and evolve to the changing world. That too, is part of its majesty but in those shifts we should take care that we shepherd an evolution rather than a devolution.


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