Thursday, January 28, 2010

Grammar Warriors: The Meaning of Words

None of us speak the same language. Since you’re reading this, you probably call the language you speak English. I call the language I speak English too.

Chances are that we had a similar introduction to English if you’re a native speaker. Our parents and the people around us taught us the bulk of what we know without even realizing it.

On a relative scale, this works pretty well. We have the semblance of understanding what other people are saying in our language.

Unfortunately, spend any time around humans and you’ll quickly realize that we generally have huge issues with communication. The communication failure that isn’t related to lying, deceit, and fear can partly be attributed to the differences between our individual language.

The phrase “it is what it is” contains just three different words and the grammar is simple enough. It’s a meaningless statement akin to “those things which exist are in existence.”

However, if you were to say it to a certain group of my friends, you’d be saying something very profoundly insulting. “I have the power to fix this ridiculously bad situation I’ve put you in, but I’m not going to do anything at all.” That’s the gist for my friends.

Not only do words have different meaning for different people, words also change meaning. If you look at text from a hundred years ago, awesome, cool, terrible, awful, great, molest, and a number of other words have changed meaning substantially. If you go to Florida and see the “Don’t molest the alligator” signs and interpret that in a modern sense, you’ll get the wrong message.

Fortunately, the passage of time has the tendency to remove most of the annoying fads of phrase, excising the words or the meanings which are no longer needed in our culture, while preserving the ones that are more useful. “Oh snap!” will hopefully gasp its last breath very soon.

This flexibility in language is absolutely critical to its usefulness. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who would rather be right than permit the language to change. You’ve all heard that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with But or And. Hopefully you’ve also heard that isn’t true anymore.

There are a lot of antiquated rules like this. These rules further stand in the way of our understanding of each other when using the written language. “I’m doing good” may not be officially proper English, but it’s the common usage and needs to be respected.

“I’m doing well” may convey the message in a grammatically correct sense, but it also conveys a lot of other messages and some of those are counterproductive. I’ll call this concept “meaning baggage” since I haven’t invented any phrases lately.

My friends’ issue with “it is what it is” qualifies as meaning baggage. The fact that you giggle anytime someone asks you if you want a pickle is probably also meaning baggage.

When we say that “ain’t” isn’t a word, we’re counteracting one of the mechanisms whereby language repairs itself. And, let’s be honest, English needs a lot of repair. My favorite examples are spellings from loanwords that weren’t naturalized. Try pronouncing bureau phonetically.

The artificially imposed rigidity applies in writing particularly. You’ll occasionally hear parents and grandparents correcting their children’s spoken grammar, but that sort of thing is generally rare outside of those guardian relationships.

In written word, the vanguards of the eternal preservation of proper English “as I interpret it in the only correct way” are much more active.

Words aren’t considered real words until they’ve been in at least one edition of Webster’s or Oxford. The hilarious thing about this is words only make it in after they’ve seen extensive use. Clearly, a word is a word a long time before Webster acknowledges it.

Let’s be sensible. A word is real when both you and I know what we’re talking about when one of us says it.

That does mean that in some cases a word won’t be a word for everyone, but I think it’s a sensible standard. And it has the upside of meaning we won’t have to continue accepting a fad word’s meaning until Webster’s gets around to removing it.

Chillax! Just kidding on that one, folks.


Lew Jaffe said...

This weeks posting on my blog also relates to the changing meaning of words, as captured on bookplates.

J. McNeill said...

Wow, Lew. I've never said this to anyone poking their blog on my comments, but your blog is quite a resource for historical media geeks.

I could easily spend a few hours going through all the plates you've got there. Thanks for commenting!