A) If you’ve not read Heidi’s post at Shapely Prose, you really ought to go do that first.

b) Yes, I’m back on the language/linguistic kick. It’s relevant, I promise.

See, here’s the thing. If you don’t have a word for something, you cannot reliably communicate it, even to yourself. Yes, abstract art (art in general) can communicate without words but art is subjective.

English is a living language. American English is particularly known for word borrowing and for folding and refolding established words for use in new ways. This means not only that new words are constantly being invented but that old words are in flux depending on the meanings and connotations associated with their current usage.

Even the OED recognizes new words and revises the definitions of others on a continual basis. (Please let me know if these links don’t work – I’m not sure what is public on the OED site and what is subscription-only content. )

There are over half a million words in the OED. Even that does not begin to corral the actual English language. That is one of the things I find most relevant in Erin McKean’sTED talk. English has a breadth and depth and, hell, a height to it that means there really is no one place in which it is going to be possible to collect every word.

Now, as users of the language, I would say, we are stewards of it. Unlike Erin McKean, we are not lexicographers casting our net in order to simply collect language – though as appreciators of language we can certainly take on that role as well. I would love to know every single one of those half-million+ words, after all. But, here, in this format, we are a small sampling of those who determine meaning. When we cast our words a certain way, we are participating in the shaping of the English language.

This does not mean we are free to loose our ties to meaning and use words in our own, individual ways beyond the usual usage. That way lies madness and noncommunication. Because a word, at its basic level, is a symbol. It’s a symbol that we all agree, roughly, has a certain meaning. Perhaps one can get away with it if one is Lewis Carroll. But imagine trying to buy a beverage from someone who not only didn’t speak your language but used all the same words you did while associating them with completely different and, to some degree, arbitrary meanings! You’d wind up with a Chocolate Martini instead of, you know, apple juice.

That is the inexactitude of language, the primary drawback that has been discussed and lamented in stories like the Tower of Babel since we realized language was not objective.

So, words mean things but sometimes that meaning changes. It changes through usage because while Person A uses the word one way, Person B uses the word a slightly different way and eventually the Person Bs outnumber the Person As who are left to accuse everyone else of ruining the language.

This is why it is so important, when we write, to pay attention to connotation. Let’s take, just for the lulz, the word xenophobic. At one point this term was used to describe a psychological condition that involved a generalized fear of strangers. It’s fallen out of favor as a diagnosis because common usage has narrowed the definition – it is now a fear of/hatred of foreigners. Not Foreigner; who doesn’t love “Cold as Ice” or “Hot Blooded” after all? The word’s meaning has shifted and people who insist on using the original, more general sense of the word find themselves in linguistic and social hot water because they are not communicating.

It has happened to the word “diet” as well. If you look at the history of the word, the word as a noun (we’ve covered the word as a verb), it has commonly meant either the way one eats or a prescribed way of eating, and it has meant the two for roughly the same amount of time, since the mid-1300s – at least according to the quotation evidence. In common modern usage, it is most commonly referring to a prescribed way of eating, particularly in the context of women talking about their bodies. And this makes people angry because the word is being, in some way, broken, disconnected from that broader meaning. But people who use the word in the now-more-common sense are not speaking improperly. They aren’t doing anything illicit with the language. They are not ruining the language.

If anything is going to ruin the language, it’s going to be the hidebound determination to use a word according to an obscure usage outside of a discourse community that understands and accepts the usage without the willingness to learn and accept that other connotations can be associated with a word as well. Stagnation is death, when it comes to language.

Please note: this does not mean I approve of IM-speak in the slightest. I see no reason for it beyond laziness and I say this as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time sending text messages.

Language is alive. It is growing and breathing just as surely as any horror movie monster. We aren’t always going to like the directions some words take – hence the reclamation of many words. Such reclamation, however, has to happen from inside the community being described by the word.

And there are going to be words that we mourn. Frankly, I wish gay were still a simple and unloaded word that meant full of or disposed to joy and mirth. It was such a good word for that! But that battle is lost and that meaning is fallen into obscurity. It falls further and further with each passing year.

And that is okay. Because for every word I mourn there is a new word to celebrate. Ridonkulous isn’t in the dictionary yet, but I have hope! If puh-leeze can make it into the OED (which, with the latest revisions, it has) so can ridonkulous!

There is no neat and tidy summation to all of this. I am an editor and am somewhat old-fashioned in regards to language, grammar, and punctuation. (Have you bought the new paperback edition of the Illustrated Elements of Style? What are you waiting for, an invitation from Strunk & White themselves?) Ultimately, I think people concerned with language would do well to be both collectors of it, casting our nets like the lexicographer, and celebrants of it, reveling in the way symbol and meaning come together in order to enable us to tell each other what we had for dinner and why our coworkers are evil. We ought to be aware of context and connotation and we ought to realize that our pet meanings may not stand the test of time. Alas, poor language, we hardly knew ye.


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18 Comments

  1. Posted September 18, 2007 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    “Perhaps one can get away with it if one is Lewis Carroll.”

    Or Ogden Nash.

    You have read Mr. Orwell on this, I presume?

  2. Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Better link:

    http://www.george-orwell.org/

    The complete Orwell is online! I may have to quit my job and just stay home and read!

  3. TR
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Oh, yay for these links! Yes, I HAVE read that bit and I do rather agree with a number of his points, particularly, at the very end:

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    The others, alas, I find a bit stifling, especially the admonishment to never use a long word when a short one will suffice. That seems to imply that words can exactly equal each other, which I don’t really believe.

    Though, as Stephen King has written, I DO believe that adverbs indicate poor verb choice and should be ripped up like dandelions in the yard.

  4. Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Let’s take, just for the lulz, the word xenophobic.

    BWAH!

    Yes, let’s.

    I’m so glad you took this on; I’ve been wanting to say something like this every time someone goes off on how “diet means what you eat,” but all I’ve been able to muster is “DOWN WITH DESCRIPTIVISTS IN THIS ONE PARTICULAR INSTANCE.”

  5. Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    One thing that stunned me when I was teaching writing was how my students could not talk about “facts.” They could only talk about “cold hard facts.” It was like a verbal tic.

  6. Becky
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Stagnation is death, when it comes to language.

    I’ve heard that’s what happened to Latin. (Seriously. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I thought it was interesting).

  7. Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Let’s take, just for the lulz, the word xenophobic

    Fillyjonk pretty much said what I was gonna say in response to that. But it merits another BWAH!

  8. Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    On a more serious note, let’s take, just for the lulz, the word “lulz.” I LOVE watching the insanely rapid evolution of online idioms. (Except for when I miss a link or six in the chain and don’t get the new word.) Language changes are fun!

  9. kate217
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    TR, If you haven’t read “Woe is I” by Patricia T. O’Conner, you really should.

  10. TR
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I have and I really enjoy it, kate217!

    Elements of Style really is my favorite grammar handbook ever, but Woe is I is a really nicely done book, as well. Also, for the more punctuation-minded, there is Eats, Shoots, and Leaves about the vagaries of periods, commas, semi-colons, and other such marks.

  11. Posted September 18, 2007 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    “…especially the admonishment to never use a long word when a short one will suffice. That seems to imply that words can exactly equal each other, which I don’t really believe.”

    Understood. I think he was reacting more to mid & post-WWII verbing (“Verbing weirds language,” as Calvin & Hobbes put it) and to the overuse of Latinate prefixes and suffixes (Hence the doubleplusparody versions in Newspeak) than to the use of legitimately big words.

  12. Amber de Katt
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    IMspeak does have a legitimate use as parody, for the inherent humor value of it (especially when one is mocking those who do use it as their default method of communication). Also, it can work as a handy abbreviation, but one that should be used sparingly.

    But what does your point A have to do with your much longer point B, up there in your opening paragraphs?

  13. Posted September 18, 2007 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Echoing the riotous laughter over the xenophobes of yore.

    Also, any post that uses “lulz,” “discourse communities,” and “Illustrated Elements of Style” is a winner in my book. Nicely done.

  14. Marc Moskowitz
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Becky @6:
    I think what happened to Latin was more the opposite: it evolved so much that it split into French, Spanish, Italian, etc.

  15. Posted September 19, 2007 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Is is *I* that does not love Hot Blooded. Or Cold As Ice.

    Though I am open to seeing the error of my ways.

  16. Posted September 19, 2007 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    One of my favorite linguistics classes when I was an undergrad was Language Change. What fascinates me is how fast changes happen. [geek]English when from subject object verb to subject verb object in fifty years ![/geek] I think this struggle we have with language change is timeless and universal though (see: The Académie française for a scary example of language purity obsession). And nothing makes me feel older than thinking “You kids with your IM speak and no capital letters or punctuation need to get off my internet!” When my friend’s 23 year old daughter IM’s me and sounds like she’s actually a 10 year old it makes my gums itch. Unfortunately, I think it’s here to stay–in fact, I think it’s going to take over.

  17. Madge
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Beautifully written. brava.

  18. Nadai
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorite quotes of all times (by James D. Nicoll) is:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

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