Mind your language

‘Espouse’ has become divorced from its meaning

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

What do people think espouse means? It looks fairly plain, since spouses are to have and to hold, or indeed embrace. That applies to opinions, metaphorically.

But King’s College, London, mounted a survey in 2019 and found that 26 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent the person from espousing their hateful views.’

I read that in a letter to the Daily Telegraph from Professor Jonathan Grant. He said that 20 per cent of the general population agreed. But here espousing is used as though it meant ‘expounding’ or ‘preaching’. No amount of violence could in fact prevent someone from espousing views, hateful though they be, in the secrecy of his bosom. Blow me if I didn’t hear someone on Radio 4 the next day using espouse in exactly this erroneous sense. Suddenly it seems everyone is using the word wrongly.

It is often impossible to tell whether a writer in a single case uses espousecorrectly or in this catachrestic sense. But sometimes the context gets the author bang to rights. In the Daily Telegraph David Attenborough was said to be in a paradoxical position because of his ‘frequent flying to produce programmes espousing his environmental message’. A writer in the Guardian referred to ‘melodramatic instructors espousing their wisdom to a small crowd of enthusiastic silhouettes’.

In both these cases espousing must be intended to mean ‘expound’. How can it be used wrongly in this way by native English-speakers? I suppose the first step is for espouse to become a dead metaphor, a cliché in which the literal sense is forgotten. All thought of real espousal, being wed or nuptial embrace is forgotten.

Perhaps the similarity in sound of espouse and expound helps the transition. That is the case in the frequent confusion of excoriate and coruscate, flaunt and flout. It is not a mere spelling error, such as the graphic I saw on the television news the other night referring to ‘withdrawl’, or the common newspaper mistake of reign in for rein in. Perhaps the next survey will ask if Britain wants ‘to reign in the monarchy’.

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