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Food For Thought

Language changes

I marvel, almost daily, at the complexity and simplicity of our language. It seems to be a sort of magic that all the books, newspapers, movie scripts, poems, love letters and grocery lists are simply various combinations of those twenty-six little symbols that make up our alphabet. Even with the abuses and misuses, they seem to manage to communicate our thoughts amazingly well.
When I typed “language changes” up there at the beginning of this, I intended for it to have two obvious meanings; first, a simple declarative statement meaning that the English language is in a state of perpetual flux. It evolves, is altered by various influences, and adjusts itself according to the need to express new concepts. Second; the phrase is also intended as a title indicating that this is about the ongoing changes that occur in the meanings of words and our use of them.
Incidentally, the word “ongoing” does not mean “happening now” or “current” as we so commonly hear used by newscasters when describing a storm, an accident, or an investigation. “Ongoing” indicates that something is perpetual, never-ending, eternal. Unfortunately, one of the things that alters our language is consistent misuse. If enough people persist in using that word to indicate that something is occurring at the present time, then, sooner or later, it will be accepted as having that meaning. And we will have lost the advantage of having a valuable word with a specific meaning. Oh, it will still retain its original meaning, but with multiple meanings to choose from, it will have lost much of its power. Because of this constant misuse, a new word has appeared recently. Although it is evident only when written, I hope those newscasters are using the hyphenated word “on-going,” a relatively recent development. But this works only in written form. Maybe we should take a clue from Victor Borge here, and use his articulated punctuation, where every mark has a sound. Then we could say “on-schwit-going” and there would be less confusion in the world.
There are a number of examples I could give you of words that have come to have such a variety of meanings that their basic meanings have become hopelessly blurred or twisted. Take the word “love” for instance. Are we truly expressing powerful emotions when we state that we love British comedies, popcorn or trout fishing? And look what we’ve done to the perfectly cheerful little word “gay.” People are afraid to use it in its original context for fear of being misunderstood and upsetting the homophobes. One of my biggest bugaboos is the present popularity of the word “segue” to indicate a transition– any transition. This word refers specifically to transitions in music and, when we try to insert it into other places that have nothing to do with music, we take away its specificity, thus its power. People who have little knowledge of music often don’t know what “segue” means, and many of them adopt it in hopes that it will make them sound more educated. It doesn’t.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about acronyms. In some instances, they are efficient, but only when they are so commonly used that people know what you’re talking about. While “Boy Scouts of America” involves seven syllables, you can eliminate four of those by saying “BSA.” Most people will know what you mean, but it saves only a few syllables. Now, take a name like AFSCME, where one has to stop for breath while listing all the different governments these employees work for, and it is evident that acronyms are useful, if not essential. Roughly twenty syllables reduced to two, now that’s worth the effort of remembering what all those initials stand for.
My biggest concern, though, is that everything will eventually be reduced to initials. We already have a lot of that creeping into our language via e-mail and texting. It may have all started with the office memo (which is itself an abbreviation for memorandum.) I find people using FYI (for your information) and LOL (laugh out loud) in conversation– people who don’t even have cell phones or computers. When a usage jumps the cliquish boundaries and inserts itself into the general population, it won’t be long before it is accepted everywhere and we will forget where it came from and what we used to say before this new fad took over.
And, please learn the difference between the words “nauseous” and “nauseated.” When someone tells me they are nauseous, I tend to agree with them. Unfortunately, they seldom get the message because they’ve never looked in the dictionary. Having heard the word misused for so long, they assume it means that they are ill, rather than that they cause illness. And that’s one of the ways language gets changed– sometimes for the worse.