Commentary – Nobody owns the language

Joe McWilliams

I can actually remember hearing the word ‘awesome’ misused and thinking it was merely amusing.
“That’s an awesome necktie!” she said.
“Not, it isn’t,” said I to myself. But I appreciated the sentiment.
‘Awesome’ as an expression meaning anything but awesome, has of course turned into an unstoppable monster. These days we use it to express enthusiastic approval, as in, “I really like that!”
The only problem is that ‘awesome’ doesn’t mean anything like ‘nice,’ or even ‘really nice.’ But much like the word ‘gay,’ nobody cares or bothers to use it in its proper sense.
Oh, well! There goes the language!
What matters most is we understand each other. If so, who cares what the rules say?
That’s one way of looking at it. Another is to wish for a bit more precision. Words express ideas and feelings and each one is supposed to mean something specific. When new meanings are added to old words, it tends to muddy the waters of communication, at least until we get used to it.
The word ‘mad,’ for example, properly means crazy, or insane. Not angry.
That’s an old one. There are plenty of newer examples.
Pop language culture is constantly appropriating perfectly good words. ‘Brutal,’ and ‘fantastic’ come to mind right off. Brutal does not mean bad or awful. It means something like excessively cruel or harsh. You can refer, in the right circumstances, to the weather as brutal, but not to a hockey player missing an open net as brutal.
Fantastic is properly used to describe something that stretches the bounds of credibility It’s not supposed to mean ‘great!’ [another misused word] or ‘terrific!’ Not supposed to, but if everybody’s doing it, then it certainly does mean that. If a tree falls in the forest. . .
Such mutations of English are not exactly new. In fact, they’ve been going on since spoken language emerged out of the grunt-and-gesture method our cave-dwelling ancestors started with. Keeping that in mind helps me not get too bugged by the current generation of language manglement.
Nobody owns language. It is what the masses decide it will be. Whatever the rules, popular culture will find ways around them. Sometimes it results in better, more interesting ways to express ideas. Often it doesn’t, but what the heck. As with manners, all you can do is set what seems an appropriate example.
Listening to some people talk can be painful, I know.
“And she’s like: ‘I told you!’”
“And I’m like: ‘No way!’”
But so is reading Geoffrey Chaucer painful. Chaucer, in his day, probably possessed the finest of skills in High English. Whatever English was then, it sure isn’t now. Despite all efforts to standardize it, it will continue to mutate.
Here’s a bit of Chaucer, circa 1380:
“Love wol nat ben constreyned by maistrye; Whan maistrie comth, the god of love anon, beteth hise winges, and farewell he is gon!”
There you go. The dons of 14th Century English letters probably beat their brains out trying to make sure that Chaucer-style English remained in force.
But quite clearly it kept right on changing. It is entirely possible, therefore, that in a century or two, ‘awesome’ will be used to mean something entirely different. Who knows? It might end up meaning something crazy like ‘inspiring a great sense of wonder, or fear.’
Wouldn’t that be nice!

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