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In recent years, have you ever seen the word ‘sparingly’ anywhere other than on a tube of skin cream or ointment? It’s almost become medical jargon.

I wonder why? I have a vision of someone back in the mists of time writing pack instructions, and thinking that ‘apply thinly’ or ‘don’t use much’ were too mundane for the world of pharmaceuticals. And ever since, anyone writing similar instructions has copied this without thinking.

It’s actually quite an elegant word, based on two of the less common meanings of the adjective ‘spare’ (thin and restrained). But if you’ve not seen it before, it’s not easy to work out what it means. Which is why, I’m guessing, it hasn’t settled into other walks of life.

So ‘sparingly’ really is applied only sparingly.

Unfortunately, rather than developing this rather endearing sector loyalty, too many words today do the opposite, forcing the nice niche words into obscurity. Take ‘customers’. It’s pushed ‘passengers’ off our trains and overtaken ‘local residents’ in the queue for council services. In some cases, it’s even used to describe people in another department of the same business. And as for ‘stakeholders’ – let’s not get started on that one.

Perhaps this is how the language now evolves – some meanings become narrower, while others become broader. But if we can do something other than ‘deliver’ something other than ‘solutions’, we might be in with a chance of preserving our verbal variety. Let’s get words like ‘sparingly’ off the chemists’ shelves and into our everyday writing.

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