Use and reference

The word “mention” has all but dropped out of the English language, replaced by the word “reference.”  When I tell my students that the use of “reference” as a verb is an odious neologism, they are at a loss for a word that might replace it.  That they cannot reach into their minds for the phrase “refers to” is maybe unsurprising; it makes sense that to learn the verb “reference” is to forget the verb “refer.”  But that “mention” is no longer in their repertoire appalls me.

What will they think when they come across the distinction, made by linguists and semioticians, between “use” and “mention”?  They will get it, sure.  But will they be able to conjure with it?  Will they see how far they can run with it?

But perhaps in 20 years all books that refer to that distinction will have been revised in the new argot.  Now they will reference the distinction between “use” and “referencing.”


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