Monday, September 21, 2009

Dealing with Change, or Things get bigger and smaller

The language changes all the time which means, of course, that new words are added to the language, other words drop out of favour, and...!horrors of horrors!...words change meaning. When I was a lad, for instance, "gay" meant happy; now it means something...different. And I won't talk about the mystery novel written in the 1920s where the author noted that one character had recently "given up liquor and fags" (as it turned out later in the book: No, he hadn't).

I've encountered any number of people who strongly object to words changing meaning. The feeling seems to be that once the speaker has learned the meaning of the word, no one is allowed to change the meaning. Passing over my usual objection ("Would you want to speak like William Shakespeare?" No? I didn't think so), let me point out that "silly" originally was a synonym for "saintly". Try using "silly" with that older meaning and see how people react. No--I mean it: Go try. I'll wait here.

An example we use in Learning Tree's technical writing course is the word "diction." It originally meant "word choice" (which explains why it's called a "Dictionary") but, by the time that I was in grade 2 in Regina, Saskatchewan, "diction" was being used to mean "enunciation." If you look up the word's definition through Google by searching on "define: diction" you can see both meanings. Generally speaking older sources list "word choice", sources from the middle of the last century list both meanings (but put "word choice" first), and recent sources list "enunciation" first (some even omit "word choice" altogether). Generally speaking, most people know and use only one of the definitions and disparage those using the other definition.

In an attempt to justify their objection to change, I've heard people say that the problem is that when words change meaning the definition always becomes broader, destroying the ability to speak of things. Let me point out that neither "gay" or "diction" follow that pattern: the two meanings have only a tangential relationship to each other. However, there are any number of examples where a word's meaning has become more specific over time. For instance, "engine" originally meant anything that exhibited ingenuity or cunning (i.e. something that is "ingenious") but now the word means almost exclusively, something that drives a vehicle (or, as a metaphor, for something that drives other things: "an engine of change"). Similarly "factory" (as in "Moose Factory", for us Canadians) meant any place where agents ("factors") performed some kind of business for their masters; now the meaning is restricted to "manufacturing."

Words change meaning over time. Life's like that.

Reading or read

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