A Word About Words

Today I’m writing about writing, which I suppose is marginally more entertaining than talking about talking.

I’m going to stop short of calling this an all-out rant. While I do have strong feelings about what I want to express, rants aren’t known for being particularly introspective, nor are they characterized by conflict or recognition of an alternative view. As I write this, I’m in a quandary.

I want to talk about words. I am a self-professed word nerd and borderline grammar nazi. Words are my stock-in-trade, the fundamental building blocks of my profession, the very cells that make up the organisms I give life to. While I’m not much of a purist in other areas, I’m very protective of words. I choose them carefully and judiciously, which I guess explains why it took me over five years to write my novel. But I digress.

When I’m writing, I’m filled with a giddy exhilaration over the creative potential of words. They’re like the coloured wax crayons I used to get as a kid, the ones packaged in an orange box with a green lid, and for some reason always came in multiples of 8. The more colours the better. Later, coloured pencils replaced the wax crayons, in turn supplanted by marker pens, replaced at their turn by the colour palettes in graphic software. What was most important to me was the diversity and range of hues. I wasn’t content with 2 or 3 shades of blue: I wanted 20. The greater the array of colours at my disposal, the more precisely and accurately I could convey the image in my head, and this was essential for someone who lived by the principles of nuance and subtlety. Hell, I’d have been happy with a box full of grey crayons, provided there were sufficient shades of them.

[I won’t argue here about the merit of art expressed through a limited palette: galleries and museums around the world are full of masterpieces that can be so described. It’s just not how my brain works.]

I feel the same way about words, but where this analogy breaks down is significant: colours don’t change. While there may be areas along the spectrum where differing interpretations are conceivable (is a particular shade of blue-green more blue than green?) the generally accepted interpretation of what constitutes blue isn’t about to be turned on its head. A new generation of artists isn’t about to come along and decide that what I always thought of as blue is now brown. These conventions are fairly stable and consistent across time and geography.

Not true of words. As an anthropologist, I’ve learned that language, like all other aspects of culture, is a dynamic, adaptive system. This is especially true of spoken language; the written version of it is by several degrees more static and struggles and lurches along trying to keep up. Words are born, they evolve, morph, and become extinct. They are constantly being made up, appropriated from other languages, their pronunciations altered, their meanings adapted and twisted to fit changing contexts, discarded whole sale, and sometimes even resurrected. This has been going on for as long as there’s been language, likely some 200,000 years, perhaps much, much longer.

And here’s the rub when it comes to all this change: people like me don’t have to like it. I can rant and preach until the next glacial advance about how multitudes of words are being misused; that when, for example, people say they feel “nauseous” they really should be saying “nauseated”; that “simplistic” is not the same as “simple” and shouldn’t be substituted for it (and that it certainly shouldn’t be used as a compliment); that the way “literally” is being used increasingly (as “figuratively”) is the precise opposite of its defined meaning; that one “pores”, not “pours”, over numbers in a ledger or details in a manuscript; or that “rude” means offensively impolite or bad-mannered and not just something that you don’t want to hear. Examples like these are legion, and each one makes me die a little bit inside, each one a single paper cut that together over time will bleed me dry.

I can make a plea to authority and draw my trusted Webster’s or OED like Excalibur, brandishing it before the linguistic heathen to bestow upon them the righteous light of “the correct meaning”, and I often do (though nowadays it’s usually the on-line editions). But the thing is, once the number of people “misusing” a particular word in the same way reaches a critical mass, it’s tough noogies. I could say “But it’s not in the dictionary!!!!” but the simple, inescapable retort to which I have no intelligent rebuttal is “Then it’s time to change the dictionary.”

Revisiting my original analogy, perhaps a more healthy perspective would be that words aren’t like coloured pencils in a box: they’re more like your children. As much as you love them, it can sometimes be difficult to watch them grow, mature, change before your eyes, while you watch helplessly from the sidelines. Sure, most of them will evolve in directions that you can accept and live with and continue to love. But sometimes they’ll quit school, get their tongue pierced, and run off with a bass player in a death metal band.

Irregardless of your feelings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s