Updated: Nov 27, 2022
The insanity of allowing words to mean anything!
I don’t know what anyone is talking about anymore!
I hear people referring to a good friend as “bad,” a thin girl as “phat,” a great movie as a “bomb.” Any time I lament the decline of the English language, however, and complain about the confusion that results from people using language incorrectly, someone will invariably chime in with the obvious cliché: “language changes!”
Well of COURSE language changes! That’s obvious, but saying this is a little like cutting off your nose, and when asked why you did it, you respond by saying “Hey, people change!”
Not only DOES language change, it MUST change, but there is a real difference between stupid change, and smart change. Smart change is modifying the language to help express things that could not have been expressed before, such as 'email,' 'cyberspace' and 'software.' There were no terms for these just a few decades ago, and they had to be invented… which is a bad thing. (and by 'bad' I really mean 'good')
Stupid change, on the other hand, is using words to mean the opposite of their known meaning, or taking words that already have a meaning, but changing it to the point where no one knows what you are talking about.
Take for example, the word 'vegetarian.' A perfectly good word (here I really do mean 'good'), meaning one who eats only plant-based food: no fish, beef, milk, eggs or cheese. Tragically, this perfectly fine word has been misused so often that it has come to mean a non-meat eater, although since most people don’t consider fish to be meat, they can actually eat animals and still feel as if they are morally superior to those who eat poultry, pork and beef. The ugly word 'vegan' has now come to mean what vegetarian has always meant to begin with: one who doesn’t eat animals or anything that comes from an animal. Now, I really have no idea when someone says she’s a vegetarian because I don’t know if she is using it in its original context, the modified and incorrect modern use, or some kind of pathetic hybrid. This has not enhanced communication; it has obfuscated it.
'Decimated' is another fine word that is falling by the wayside. From the root meaning 'ten,' the word 'decimated' means to destroy 10% of something. If a tornado wiped out 100 houses out of 1000, you could correctly say that the neighborhood or village was decimated. Today, however, so many people use decimated to mean 'destroyed' or 'obliterated' that I have no idea what they’re talking about now when they use the word. Stupid change.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation in a bar with a young man on the subject of rap. I don’t have anything against rap, and I even like some of it, I just don’t call it 'music' because it’s not. There is no music there. There is no tune. They are words recited to a beat; It is poetry, some of it very good poetry, but poetry, not music. My young friend, however, said that rap is music because they call it music, which reminded me of the Abraham Lincoln quotation: “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? 5? No….4….. because calling a tail a leg does not it make it one.”
“Yes,” the young man insisted. “ ‘High’ is ‘low’ and ‘low’ is ‘high’…. words can mean anything you want them to mean.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t get it. When words can mean “anything,” they cease to have any meaning at all.