Keeping 'Hopeful' Full of Hope

I DO not think Robert Louis Stevenson was making specific reference to the hazards of using British Rail as a means of moving from A to B in the tricky 1990s when he wrote in 1881: ''To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.''

''Hopefully,'' once upon a time -- frankly, actually, really really, honestly -- meant what it said. So, incidentally, did ''frankly,'' ''actually,'' ''really,'' and ''honestly.''

''Hopefully'' is certainly (and how about the word ''certainly'' as an example of meaning-loss?) one of the over-used words of our current decade, and has weakened accordingly.

Is there any reason to doubt that Stevenson used it in the sense of ''to travel full of hope''? And yet if one were to apply the same sentence today to travel, the irony of its degraded meaning would surely be built in. It has virtually come to suggest its opposite: ''to travel doubtfully....''

Stevenson was a Scot. The Scots have long favored ''hopeful'' as a hopeful word. In 1755, Johnson's Dictionary defines it in part as ''full of hope, full of expectation of success,'' but adds, ''This sense is now almost confined to Scotland.''

Interestingly (now that's a word much used), Johnson also gives definitions for ''hopefully,'' including ''with hope, without despair.'' But he then remarks: ''This sense is rare.''

If today the word itself is not at all rare, it is partly because its usage has changed. It has become ''a sentence adverb.'' ''Hopefully,'' we say, ''the weather will soon improve.'' At the very least, such a usage is variable in implication.

Booking a rail ticket yesterday, I was struck by my need to ask what I might do if I missed a rather tight connection at Crewe. (There was a time when one would have taken the notion of a train on time for granted. Today, not even British Rail staff do.) The lady found a slightly later train I could connect with, and then said: ''But hopefully your first train will run on time!''

I would have had rather more confidence in her prediction if she had not used the qualifier ''hopefully.'' Clearly, she used it to mean that she had a considerably degree of uncertainty about the matter.

Professional wordpeople vary in their approach to the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb. In ''Questions of English,'' the Oxford Dictionary's team is philosophical and counsels sagely: ''we must all learn to live with changes we deplore.'' It points out that since the language ''lacks a word hopable '' then ''the use of the word 'hopefully' in this context is undoubtedly here to stay.'' ''Undoubtedly'' does seem to mean what it says.

But a very long usage note in the 1992 American Heritage Dictionary reveals a strong, if hard to justify, distaste for ''hopefully'' as a sentence adverb, ''as in 'Hopefully the measures will be adopted.' '' Indeed, a ''large majority'' of the dictionary's usage panel found it ''unacceptable.''

Intriguingly, this note points out that ''hopefully'' was a vogue word some 30 years ago ''and has long since lost any taint of jargon or pretentiousness for the general reader.'' Nevertheless, the panel in the early 1990s objected to it even more vigorously than the panel in the late 1960s.

Perhaps the persistent controversy over ''hopefully'' is that it is so mindlessly overly employed.

Should we feel helpless and hopeless in the face of the degradation of words?

I prefer to think not. After all, hope springs eternal in the human breast, doesn't it? Hopefully?

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