Thursday, August 15, 2013

The death of a word

I'm one of those word nerds who drives his family crazy by correcting their speech and writing. I do it to be helpful, I really do. I've learned to lay off my friends in public because people are embarrassed if you point out an error in spelling, punctuation, pronunciation or word choice. They protest, "You know what I mean!", but they're really just embarrassed by their ignorance.

Why, then, are dictionaries enabling rather than challenging them?

English is said to be the most difficult language in the world to master. But, for its complexity it is also the most glorious. There are no true English language synonyms. Every word that essentially means the same as another has its own unique feeling and implication. These implied emotions and judgments allow really good writers to write between the lines, to manipulate perspective and emotions by inference rather than directive.

The best writers never tell you what to think or how to feel, they merely lead the way and allow you to discover yourself in their path.

That's the power of the language. 

Words are my business. I talk on the radio for a living and write a bit on the side, so this stuff is a big deal for me. I don't expect most people to understand or care about the subtleties and nuances of the language. I don't point out slightly off target utterances, not even to my wife, just the ugly errors that may lead people to misunderstand or misjudge her. But I do ask English speakers everywhere to join with me in protest of officially redefining perfectly good, very specific words simply because so many people are too lazy to learn to use them correctly.

The Oxford English Dictionary has thrown in the towel and declared that the constant misuse of the word, 'literally' is now acceptable. It can mean literally or it can be used for emphasis as in, "It was literally raining cats and dogs."

These horribly conflicting definitions are 180 degrees out of sync. The word "literally" is effectively dead.

Education is apparently no longer the Dictionary's purpose. The arbiters of our language seem to have decided it is nobler (and perhaps, more politically correct) to reflect rather than guide communication. In doing this they leave it to the reader or listener to determine if cats and dogs are actually raining down from the sky or if it is 'literally', meaning figuratively, raining cats and dogs.

And what difference does it make, you may ask? In this example, probably none but it does empower hyperbole in ways that make purists like me panic for our sudden blindness.

If I can't trust you to say precisely what you mean or to understand what I'm saying, what is the point in either of us saying anything at all?

These days we're all giving up. We shrug and say, "Whatever." Even the Dictionary is doing it.

We all suffer when our ability to communicate with specificity and clarity is eroded.

I understand that language is fluid and always evolving. I embrace that. I ply my trade using colloquial English and I adore slang, it's the spice that enriches the language but is useless by itself.

Definitions can't be allowed to contradict themselves just because people are lazy. 
At this rate, in a couple of generations communication will have devolved to grunting and pointing at things.

(That's neither literally nor figuratively literal, it's just sarcasm.)

© D.L. Williams, August 16, 2013

No comments:

There was an error in this gadget