A Word, Please: Language evolution has a fail-safe
Once upon a time there was a word that meant “a male or female child.” One day, people started using it wrong.
For some reason, they started using it to mean only a female child. Suddenly, a term that had long included males meant “definitely not male.”
We can imagine the fallout. Surely some people were misunderstood. Surely others decried this change as imprecision in the language. Still others likely saw it as part of a disturbing trend — a dumbing down of the entire language.
No one listened. And that’s how we got the word “girl” as we know it today.
Once upon another time, there was a word called “thou.” I don’t need to tell you how this story ends, though I would like to mention its arc. “Thou” gave way to “you” through a slow process that began as outright misuse, likely causing some confusion for a while before it was eventually replaced by “you.”
This is where words come from. They evolve slowly, often through misuse. Things can get a little chaotic for a while, but never as much as people fear. That’s because there’s a self-policing mechanism built right into our language: the need to be understood.
If, back in the day, the people using “girl” in the new sense were having problems being understood, they would have retreated from the newer meaning.
There are two kinds of people who condemn language’s natural process of change: people who don’t understand it and people who like to take advantage of the people who don’t understand it.
James Kilpatrick was a member of the latter group. The longtime columnist who died in 2010 had for years penned columns raging about crimes against the language. For example, in a 1979 column, Kilpatrick goes on a rant about lax uses of the word “hopefully.” In it, he chastises fellow columnist William Safire for being too liberal on the matter.
Safire, a conservative in politics and language, had argued that there’s no reason to object to the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. Everyone, he said, understands what you mean when you say, “Hopefully we’ll have nice weather tomorrow.”
Kilpatrick was appalled.
“Hopefully,” he said, should not be used as a sentence modifier to mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” It can only modify a verb and it can mean only “in a hopeful manner,” he wrote.
What was his source? Kilpatrick didn’t offer one. His say-so was all the evidence readers needed, even though any dictionary could have proven him wrong.
Grammar bullies often rely on fear tactics, arguing that English is in an alarming state of decay and if someone doesn’t do something about it fast we’ll soon all be grunting unintelligibly like Neanderthals or, worse, talking like rappers.
But grammar bullies are, at heart, people who fear change. No one was a better example of this than Kilpatrick — a man who had made name for himself in the 1950s writing about racial segregation. He was in favor of it.
Change in language can look like a bad thing. After all, when people start using “literally” to mean something other than “literally,” a clear, precise, useful word takes it on the chin. But if you understand that language is constantly evolving, if you understand that this is the same process that created the word “literally” in the first place, there’s nothing to fear.
So how do you know when a word has entered formal legitimacy? Check a dictionary. Lexicographers’ job is to determine whether the culture has sanctioned a word and how they use it. We vote with our speech and writing; they record the votes in dictionaries.
It’s purely democratic, which is probably why self-appointed language czars don’t want people to know about it.
Illo by Alex Grey via TANN
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