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!
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