Monday, April 25, 2011

The ever-moving goal posts of language

In a recent Slate piece written by (I presume) a linguistics professor (he alluded to giving a quiz) takes as his premise the notion that as usage of terms change the meanings change, which of course is true; our language has been adapting since before it was in a form that could be considered a language; that's how it got to be a what we'd call a "language" in the first place. The number of words that mean precisely the same thing as when someone first tried to codify definitions likely is a shorter list than the ones that have changed, either slightly or significantly, over time, so conceivably someone who was thusly inclined could pick some words (almost at random), investigate their etymology a bit then study their current contextual usage, and compose a piece showing how they've changed, and this could be done as often as one had time to do so.

Anyway… the thesis of the article was exploring the question when should the (what we'll call) original meaning be retained (considered the only "correct" definition) and when should the "new" meaning be given the same credence. He based the criteria for making the distinction be whether the predominant contemporary usage favored the original or new connotation, combined with the question of whether the "new" meaning already had another, already existing word that carried the intended definition.

And that, I would say, is wherein lies the rub. If there's a term that precisely carries the desired connotation one intends (and with all the words English has taken in, there's plenty from which to choose) but instead one appropriates a separate, perhaps similar-sounding term out of ignorance, the duly informed should intercede before the rest of the ignorant co-opt the misusage and it becomes the dominant idiom.

However, in everyday rhetoric it may be easier said than done for the informed to plug every hole in the proverbial dam. With fewer resources devoted to editing and proofreading (especially on the internet), in any given case the odds are reasonable that the one speaking or writing will include some terms where he/she believes the usage is correct but where he/she actually should be considered among the ignorant. (I have no doubt I have done so at some point. Perhaps even in this entry. I'd lay odds that when I used "idiom" at the end of the last paragraph some prescriptivist would take umbrage at that—and justifiably so—but let's move on, as the novelty of this parenthetical digression must be wearing off.)

I should interject here that I don't necessarily intend "ignorant" to have the negative connotation it seems to carry these days, so if that particular term bothers you, please replace it with "uninformed." Okay, I'll just switch to that word from here on out.

So we are faced with the scenario where someone may have seen or heard a word and not actually researched its specific definition(s) but believed he/she gleaned that from the context. Or maybe just assumed incorrectly. However it happened, the speaker/writer is… well, uninformed doesn't quite fit for what I mean, so let's go with "under-informed" (where there is some information—the word—but not enough information necessary to comply with any standards).

Alternatively, there's the possibility that the speaker/writer does know the right word and its definition but when he/she tries to think of it the brain gets some wires crossed and it instead supplies the wrong word but because he/she knew what was attempted and the brain gave what it thought was right the same brain is not going to catch its own error, so the incorrect term is what comes out. (I know I've suffered that fate.)

Without someone who can identify what was meant and note a better word at that point, with any luck before a wider audience sees it, the possibility is that the mistake is taken as correct by more uninformed people who then pass it along, and so on and so forth.

And eventually enough people have come to believe the word means something other than what it had meant that there's no stopping the avalanche. Even the linguistic powers that be must begrudgingly acknowledge usage as it is, much to the chagrin of the previously informed.

Okay, please permit another digression, as I admit something: "Chagrin" is a word that I mistakenly though suggested delight rather than dismay until I was in college. I have no specific recollection of how first I became familiar with "chagrin" but I do know that initially I perceived its meaning to indicate happiness; I imagine it was due to the fact the second syllable is the word "grin" and that gesture's association with being happy. Eventually (as I recall) I read it in a context where it clearly connoted another emotion, and I looked it up to find any grinning one did would be strained and insincere.

I can admit that because I discovered my error on my own, without being publicly humiliated in a situation where I misused the term in a conversation or in a paper. Sure, I like to believe that even had the revelation come in a forum where my face became flushed with shame I would be over that by now, but I'm not certain I would.

That's another key aspect of the overall scenario: the difficulty in finding a gentle way of correcting the under-informed that is not intended to be derisive nor to elicit a defensive response. Obviously there are a-holes out there who get off on flaunting their knowledge and a-holes who adamantly cling to their ignorance almost as a source of pride, and both are equally lost causes; one should avoid them in the situations we're discussing. However, I like to believe there are plenty of people in the middle of that spectrum who have something to share or who need something shared with them and would appreciate having that shared, but those assholes at both ends have made it so it's not worth the trouble.

Don't get me wrong; I fully concede there can be some wonderful catharsis to be found in going off on someone else's stupidity—and there's no shortage of egotistical blowhards who deserve to be taken down a peg or two… or seventeen—but the under-informed here are not going to be improved by being made to feel like idiots. If anything, that tactic seems more apt to make them dig in their rhetorical heels and misuse terms out of spite, with full knowledge that it gets under the skin of prescriptivists.

However, I may be unique* in this way of thinking. Perhaps all people really want is something to complain about (not merely with language but in general) without any attempt at a solution. Or to even put it in terms of a situation where there's a need for any improvement likely requires contemplating it with a level of attention that is more effort than it takes to know what all the words mean in the first place.

Thus, any level of being under-informed about vocabulary is not the problem unto itself; that's merely a manifestation of the perennial human dilemma: Paying attention is a lot of work, and keeping it up all the time is simply unrealistic.

There should be a word for that. Perhaps someday someone will cleverly concoct a term that captures the essence of our human issue. More likely, however, is that some word we already have will be co-opted instead. And someday, someone who is paying way too much attention may include that in an essay about how its definition changed—to the chagrin of some and the under-informed oblivion of others.


* (For this digression I will employ a quasi-footnote format) "Unique": Another word where its usage in contemporary vernacular has transformed its meaning from "one of a kind" to merely "unusual; that which does not does not elicit a thought of a comparable thing in the mind of the speaker." The original definition defies qualifiers—if something is unlike everything else it cannot be "somewhat" so; either it is or it isn't. However, to hear someone declare something to be "somewhat unique" is not unusual.

Granted, to think that anything could be unique in that original sense was perhaps impossible in the sense of what is capable by human comprehension; we understand things by their relative similarities or dissimilarities to other things, so to assert something was unlike anything else was making a statement about the limitations of one's mental capacity or experience, not a statement about the thing itself.

But, as clearly I am wont to do, I digress.

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