Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Words that have lost their original meaning

Words change their meanings over the years; sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. Examples of accidental change include "tissue" (or, as we called them when I was a kid, snot-rags) becoming "Kleenex", or "reproduction" becoming "Xerox"- those brands had such a huge market share that the specific became the generic.

Examples of deliberate change include "Gay", "African American", and "Native American"; they were chosen because the previous terms had become pejorative. The first two mentioned have actually had several generations of change, and may change again in the future.

None of those changes matter very much to the common comprehension required for communication- if I say, "Hand me a Kleenex", my meaning is clear. A person who was unfamiliar with the term "Native American" could easily figure it out, and the only people I've known who were genuinely confused by the term "African American" were the young children of a white immigrant from South Africa. Other words that have changed, however, are becoming a true hindrance to clear communication. Here are a few:

Literally The way the word is used today, one would think that people literally do not know what it means.

God At one time, "God(s)" meant a supernatural being or beings. Discussions of "God" were limited to the quantity (Unity? Trinity? Poly?) of these beings, and the attributes thereof. Today, people speak of God being love, or the interdependent web, or some such. Of course, we know why these circumlocutions were invented- to allow Catholic and Anglican bishops who had lost their faith to continue to draw their stipends. But it has resulted in much miscommunication.

Liberal and Conserative, and to a large extent Democrat and Republican One small example among many: originally it was Liberal Democrat Kennedy who championed massive tax cuts to stimulate the economy, and Conservative Republicans who opposed it as a risky scheme. This was not a deliberate change, but merely reflects the fact that most politicians are not leaders but weathervanes. Nonetheless, it is rendering true communication difficult.

Socialist, Fascist, Nazi The original dictionary definitions of these words are no longer used outside of a polysci doctoral thesis; today they merely mean "Someone I don't like". The only difference remaining is in who is speaking: Democrats call those they hate "Nazi"; Republicans call them "Socialist", and conspiracy nuts call both of them "Fascist".

What words would you add?

8 comments:

Chalicechick said...

Well, "Unitarian" and "universalist" come to mind.

CC
who assumes somebody is supposed to respond with those.

Will said...

The one that drives me nuts is calling "problems" "issues".

e.g. When the kids are running up and down the aisles at a Sunday service and the the parents do nothing and the rest of the folks sitting there won't do anything out of fear of offending the parent(s), to me it's not an issue, but instead is a problem.

Joel Monka said...

CC- I did expect someone to say that, but I don't think it applies. "Universalist" hasn't changed, and "Unitarian" is only a problem as it's used as the short form of "Unitarian Universalist". When used in its own right, it still means the same. That leaves "Unitarian Universalist"... but did that ever have a distinct meaning of its own?

Will, yes, I have issue with that myself. :)

Chalicechick said...

If I say, "I'm a Unitarian," only the pickiest people will bother to ask if I disbelieve the divinity of Jesus Christ or if I am a Unitarian Universalist.

Pretty much everyone treats the second definition as the definitive one unless the context makes it obvious that isn't the case.

As for other words that have changed meanings, the ones that interest me are the ones that mean nearly the opposite of what they used to. "Nice" has had quite a variety of meanings, some of them, well, not very nice.

A "drab" as used in MacBeth means a hooker, and most hookers are, well, not drab.

I could go on like this for awhile...

CC
who befriends Linguists, dontcha know.

Joel Monka said...

"A "drab" as used in MacBeth means a hooker, and most hookers are, well, not drab."

I'm afraid I must disagree. I may be more familiar with hookers than you are- prostitution has been a problem in my neighborhood ever since a plasma bank opened, and we've had 150 arrests in a day more than once. I've seen my share of hookers, and frankly, most times I'd play naked Twister with Michael Moore before I'd so much as give one of them a ride to the 7-11.

But then, you live in DC- I'm sure the movers and shakers get a higher class of hooker than we do.

Chalicechick said...

Well, I didn't mean the hookers were beautiful, though I understand the classy ones usually are.

The ones I've seen on a street corner wore a lot of spandex, bright colors and metallic fabrics.

One could come up with lots of adjectives for that wardrobe, "Drab" isn't one of them.

That said, given my criteria maybe I assumed the drab hookers weren't hookers.

CC
who would rather give a hooker a ride to the 7-11 than play naked twiseter with Micheal Moore. It's less gross AND I'd get a slurpee out of it.

Aishwarya Swan-Cullen said...

I agree whole-heartedly with Will with his point about Issues and Problems and I nodded the whole way through Joel's article. I'd also like to make an addition to the examples with it: "love" "hate" and apology. Though they haven't lost their original meaning, isn't it rational to say that they don't mean what they originally meant anymore? The idea behind the word has been conserved, by the power has diluted so much, no?

Ash.

Joel Monka said...

Yes, "love" and "hate" are used in ways that are not exactly what the words would lead one to believe. For example, I've heard several people say they "love" Cherry Coke, but none of them have married a bottle of it yet.