Thursday, April 6, 2006

Converted to good usage

Someone I know -- I won't link it because the aim is not to embarrass but to discuss -- asked her readership whether one proselytises "to" someone else. One doesn't. You proselytise people. The reason she was confused was almost certainly because she shares a common misconception about the word.

"Proselytise" does not mean "preach with the aim of converting". It simply means "convert". By extension, we can use it to mean "act with the intention of converting". It can be intransitive, so that if I say "he is proselytising", I mean "he is trying to convert people".

A "proselyte", a Bible scholar will tell you, was a convert to Judaism. It means "stranger, incomer". The sense of being a convert has been extended to other religions, so that you might call all new converts "proselytes". When you know this, it becomes apparent that "proselytise" means simply "make a proselyte" in the same way that "politicise" means "make political" or "regularise" means "make regular".

What does this show? It shows that knowing what a word means is not always a simple matter of knowing what the dictionary says it means, or thinking you know what it would say if you looked it up, but can include knowing why it means. Having that greater knowledge helps the writer understand the words he or she uses and use them correctly, without stumbling. And it means that I know that if I want to talk about missionaries' converting tribespeople in the Sudan, I will write that they are "proselytising Africans" and not that they are "proselytising to Africans", which would be nonsense.

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