Wednesday, December 17, 2008

WNW: Evolving English

This one might get me into a tiny bit of hot water with some people. Be forewarned.

English, like all languages, changes over time. Anyone who's attended a Shakespeare play can attest to that. More recently, a lot of Jane Austen's humor can be lost if you're unfamiliar with some of the words used them. Or, going much further back, good luck understanding The Canterbury Tales if you try reading it in the original Middle English.

Thanks to the printing press, languages tend to change slower than they used to. But they still change, even from one generation to another.

Maybe a year ago, there was some discussion on a list I'm on where some people argued that writers shouldn't use certain words because of what they "really mean."

The irony is that what a word "really" means is extremely subjective and changeable.

When my father was a boy, someone could say, "I feel quite gay today," and no one would bat an eye. I'd wager that most children in today's world would have no idea what that sentence had to do with a few decades ago; it has a totally different meaning now.

Same goes with things like "toilet," which used to mean, essentially, primping. But people wanted to change perception of doing one's business, so they attached a prettier word. Instead of the act taking on a prettier definition, the word "toilet" took on the nastier connotation and a new meaning.

Think of all the other euphemisms we use for that place: rest room (Who are we kidding? No one goes there to rest), bathroom (okay, sometimes it has a bath, but not always, and when you go there, you aren't usually bathing). Water closet? Well, there is water, but that's not really the point. And so on.

Not accepting change is where some old English teachers tend to go crazy. You know the kind of thing I mean: A student asks, "Can I get a drink?" and the teacher replies, "I don't know, can you?" because she expects the student to use may.

Puh-leese. I think that's totally antiquated. Can has taken on the meaning of may and is just as legitimate used that way.

Another one is split infinitives, or saying that "to" and the verb have to stick together and can't be separated by an adverb. But sorry, folks, "to go boldly" sounds intensely lame. It really needs to be "to boldly go."

This is all why I just shake my head at some people who freak out over the use of some words that have totally changed meaning, but they personally cling to the old one. Words like, "suck." (Here comes the hot water.)

I know adults who have no clue about that word's history. But others bring it up and freak out and have to inform others what it "really" means, and then everyone's grossed out.

But it no longer "really" means that.

Let it go. The word has changed meanings.

Another example: back in high school, I learned the history behind "the mother of," and trust me; it's about as nasty as you can get. But the meaning has changed. I had to train myself to stop thinking about the old definition, to not freak out every time I hear someone use it, because they're using it in a different way, with a different meaning than it used to have.

For all intents and purposes, it's now a new phrase altogether.

Think of it this way: if you're a purist and insist that we stick with old meanings, then you shouldn't have a Christmas tree. After all, it's a pagan symbol.

Ridiculous, no? Of course we should have Christmas trees. That symbol has changed meanings now, right? It's a beautiful Christian symbol of everlasting life, a gift we have access to thanks to the birth, Atonement, and resurrection of Christ.

So how can I justify being all Grammar Nazi, flinching at dangling modifiers and lie/lay misuse, and insist at the same time that language is fluid, and rules change?

There's a pretty easy explanation. It goes back to dialects and standard English and a bunch of other things . . . which I'll get into next Word Nerd Wednesday!

25 comments:

Kristina P. said...

I completely agree!

That's all. :)

Heidi Ashworth said...

All very good points (or just one point) esp since I have the worst time remembering which is correct, lie or lay, and in which instance (I think you lie yourself down and lay down something else--but I really can't be sure!)

Erin said...

This reminds me of my "knit" or "knitted" dilemma earlier this week. Thank you! I agree with everything you said.

Josi said...

So true, Annette. And I think it's important for us to let things evolve, it's how one generation makes it's place. I had no idea that Freak had a bad association with another F word until a few years ago when someone brought it to my attention. I wish they'd kept their mouth shut--I had never associated it with that until then. Suck is another one, I thought it was referring to Vacuums, not . . . well, the other thing. Great post.

Jan said...

I am so inadequate in all the word knowledge you carry in that brain of yours. You are very educational. Does it mean that I will change my wicked writing ways? I hope so. At least a little.

I was just talking to my daughter about the word gay. She never had heard the happy reference way before. She was shocked. But not as shocked when she learned that my horse growing up was named Gay. She didn't like that at all :)

Luisa Perkins said...

Breathe in. Breathe out. Be zen. Ahhhhhhhhh.

I love you, darling.

Lara said...

Great post!!!

It reminds me of the scene in Akeelah and the Bee when Akeelah uses the word "dis" and the professor chastises her because they have a rule that they only use words in the dictionary. She walked over to the dictionary, looked it up, and found that it was there.

Language does evolve, and it is difficult to be a purist. You'd have to decide which era you're going to stay true to anyway, since it's evolved from the very beginning and I don't see any purists going around speaking Olde Englisch. :)

Melanie J said...

I definitely take a descriptivist approach to grammar and language evolution, so....here, here!

LisAway said...

I love this. I have to talk to my husband about the "sucks" one. I still thinks it a crude term, but it shouldn't be considered as disgusting as it once was.

My favorite one is the term "to make love to." Greg still hardly believes me that in my old books it just means to confess your love for someone or to show that you are in love with someone, but I love the phrase used that way.

Heffalump said...

I always wonder what kids these days think when we sing Deck the Halls...
I am enjoying your WNW posts. They are not only educational but entertaining as well!

Don said...

The term "rest room" was originated by the mother of several small children who discovered that, since the room has a lock, it was the one place in the house she could go to get a moment's peace and quiet - a place to rest.

Its evolutionary nature is what makes language fun.

Jami said...

"Jami, I'm shocked. How can you use that word?" exclaimed the church librarian.

"Which one?" I replied.

Seriously, I had never thought of "that sucks" as anything other than a way of casually saying "what a shame" or "that's horrible." Even with the reprimand it took me days before I could come up with the possible origin of the phrase. Same with "screwed up" which always just refered to all mixed up and turned around, like a screw.

Jami said...

And I was raised pagan.

Tirzah said...

This is a great post! I think that we have to be willing to let meanings change, but if we let everything go, we won't be able to understand each other.

My husband teaches 10th grade history and when he tells me about the words he has to define for the kids, I am amazed. They have such poor vocabulary!

JustRandi said...

I love Word Nerd Wednesday! I completely agree with you, especially about the can/may thing. I think that is so antiquated and stuffy. It just irks me.

I say words like suck and crud, and my mother hates it. Next time I'll tell her to remember that language is fluid! ;)

Rebecca said...

Great post, you hit the nail exactly on the head! Although I'll forever be with the "May I" camp. My mother used the "I don't know, can you?" line ALL the time! Can't...get...it...out...of...head.

I think there is a fine balance between accepting new terminology and not losing much of what's beautiful in our language.

A lot of people's words today are so peppered with profanity and slang. It's as though they've forgotten how to use properly descriptive language--or never learned in the first place.

"Crap" is my swear word of choice. My kids always tell me I've said a bad word when I say that.

Rebecca said...

Sorry for the double comment, but I just read Lisaway's comment.

My husband has a hard time believing that definition as well! I think he finally did when I told him that in "It's a Wonderful Life" they wouldn't have had Mary yelling "He's making violent love to me, mother!" if it meant something else.

Janette Rallison said...

That's how I see it--but then again, I'm one of those rebels who think sentence fragments are just fine.

Shelle-BlokThoughts said...

I love that you point that out because I am always getting that from "more mature" people! :) I'll have to point them in the direction of your blog1 :)

Becky said...

Just at the dinner table today may daughter told us a naughty word was written on a pole at school: s-e-x-y. Maybe that's another word that has a shifting definition.

I can't get the old definitions of "suck," "screwed," "crap" out of my head--and therefore will never use them.

Great post!

Amanda D said...

I think I like WNW. Very interesting today. Thanks!

Alison Wonderland said...

The fluid v. the "correct" language is always difficult. I have the same problem with spelling. I get that night is spelled n-i-g-h-t but why? N-i-t-e makes so much more sense. Andf with the rise of texting and changable written media, like blogs, I think we'll see spellings chaging a lot faster than they did 100 years ago.
And then you get into the language issue where all new words (mostly technology related) are pretty much the same in all langauges. So with the global neighborhoods we all live in now (hey, I communicate almost daily with a gal in Poland) are we all going to eventually end up using the same language?

Summer said...

I use the word 'suck' all the time. I'm glad to know you wouldn't hate me for it. ;)

P.S. Was this post inspired by the rant over at Scribbit not too long ago?

Annette Lyon said...

Summer, It was more inspired by some conversations I had recently with friends, but the "hot water" was put in there with her in mind!

Julie Wright said...

And you know my feelings Annette. I throw the word sucks in to every email I can just to prove my own point :) I am evil.

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