The evolution of living languages Guest post by Nitay Arbel

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The evolution of living languages

Guest post by Nitay Arbel

The legions of Ancient Rome knew a collective punishment for particularly egregious offenses (such as mutiny) called decimation. One in every ten soldiers, chosen by lot, was to be put to death by his nine comrades.

The other day, somebody on Facebook bemoaned the fact that this or that writer had referred to a people being decimated by a plague — clearly meaning they had been reduced to a handful of survivors, rather than having lost 10% of their original numbers. Predictably, this “abusage” was  blamed on the lamentable (no argument there!) state of education nowadays.

This sounds plausible, except for two inconvenient facts:

(1) According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; full edition, behind a paywall), said “incorrect”, and indisputably ahistorical, meaning of the word has been around in English since the 17th century (look at the examples under (1c))

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48200

1c. More generally: to reduce drastically or severely; to destroy, ruin, devastate.

This use has sometimes been criticized on etymological grounds (see, for example, M. West & P. F. Kimber Deskbk. Correct Eng. (1957) 119 and quot. 1944), but is now the most usual sense in standard English.

(2) The above has also, for as long as I remember, been the meaning of gedecimeerd in Dutch, dezimiert in German, and cognates in several other languages. And yes, we did learn about the original meaning in HS Latin class, now almost 40 years ago.

The truth is: a living language, as actually spoken and written by people, is a living organism, and not a static construct (except perhaps in the most formal “static register” reserved for legal documents, laws, and liturgy). In particular, loan words imported from another language may undergo evolution in their meaning that takes them far away from the original.

Consider, for instance, a much more everyday example, “entree”. The original French word means “appetizer”, but in American English it universally means “main course” nowadays! (The original meaning survives in British English.) Does that mean everybody is using the word “wrong”?

And let me give a much more extreme example. The word ‘holocaust’ originally meant a wholly burnt [Temple] offering in Greek: holos=whole, fully; kaustos=burning. Holokaustos is how the Septuagint translates Biblical Hebrew olah, which is hence rendered by the anglicization holocaust in the King James Version.

It is probably not all that surprising that later in the 17th century, downstream from the KJV, we would see figurative use of the word to describe catastrophes, particularly those involving great fires and/or great loss of life. For example, in Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671):

Like that self-begott’n bird In the Arabian woods embost, That no second knows nor third, And lay e’re while a Holocaust.

For more examples see: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/87793 which even quotes a reference to “The general holocaust of civilised standards” in a 1940 House of Commons debate.

It is only after the carnage of WWII that the word (particularly capitalized) came to refer specifically to the destruction of the European Jews at the hands of National Socialism. This usage has largely driven out all other meanings, and indeed has been transferred to the deliberate genocide or democide of other groups.[*] (I myself generally use the Hebrew word Shoah [=“catastrophe”].)

The infamous “N-word” is another example. Etymologically, it refers to the Latin word for the color black. However, centuries-long derogatory use for people of Sub-Saharan African ancestry has ensured the word has no other meaning than a racial slur – with the notable exception of “linguistic reappropriation” by black people. “Qu**r” used to mean just “strange”, but nowadays is only used as a derogatory term for homosexual, or (again through reappropriation) as self-identification by a militant subculture among same-sex attracted people.

Such appropriation is itself one of the more amusing mechanisms by which language evolves: people who are being called certain pejoratives and decide to reclaim them as battle flags. “Tory”, “Methodist”, “Yankee”, “Redneck”, “Impressionist”,… all started this way. More recently, many proudly are calling themselves “deplorables”. (Dutch and German even have names for such terms: “geuzennaam” and “Geusenwort”, respectively. I have blogged about this phenomenon before: https://spinstrangenesscharm.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/deplorables-as-a-geuzennaam-linguistic-reappropriation/ )

Another amusing (or exasperating, depending on one’s point of view) mechanism is what Stephen Pinker has termed the “euphemism treadmill”. After a certain euphemism has driven out the original taboo term, it becomes itself taboo and a new “euphemism for the euphemism” needs to be invented, rinse and repeat ad infinitum. Thus, for instance, bog-house or outhouse -> privy -> toilet or lavatory -> bathroom -> restroom, WC, washroom.[**]

When foreign loan words get imported into English and the meaning does get preserved, the spellings may change inexplicably: for instance, the original French bataillon becomes, inexplicably, battalion in English (possibly via Italian battaglione).

Or — English is notorious for this — English pronunciation of the loan word may be mangled to the point native speakers of the source language don’t even recognize the word anymore. The first time somebody tried to tell me she owned a “Cay Shunt” I had no idea she was talking about the Keeshond dog breed (pronounced case hond).

Are all of these accepted contemporary usages “wrong”?

Actually, all of the above are examples of a broader question: whether language standards should be prescriptive (language as it should be spoken/written) or descriptive (language as people actually speak and write it).

French, Hebrew, Dutch, (Peninsular) Spanish, and (to a slightly lesser extent) German  are examples of the prescriptive approach. These languages have official, government-sponsored national language academies whose permanent mission it is to set the correct standards. (The Rat for Deutsche Rechtschreibung, literally “Council for German spelling”, has a more narrowly-defined mandate than the others.) Correct usage is whatever the language academy deems correct and publishes in official reference works. From the very beginning, national language academies have been watchful of “contamination” by other living foreign languages (through loan words or loan translations): recently, this has focused particularly on the struggle against franglais in French, Denglish in German, etc. For instance, French, Greek, Hebrew,… language academies have invested great efforts in coining neologisms for all sorts of scientific and technological terms from English. So a computer, software, and a printer in proper French become ordinateur, logiciel, and imprimante, respectively; in modern Hebrew machshev, tochna, and madpeset, respectively; in Standard Modern Greek, ypologisti, logismikou, and ektypotis, respectively. https://spinstrangenesscharm.wordpress.com/2018/08/04/language-registers-diglossia-and-the-greek-language-struggle/

 

In contrast, English has no such prescriptive body. Contemporary English has two major descriptive standards: the Oxford English Dictionary for UK English and Merriam-Webster for US English. The historical prescriptivist movement for English (spearheaded by, inter alia, the immortal satirist Jonathan Swift in this 1712 pamphlet: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/proposal.html ) met with limited success at best. One of its legacy is arguably the UK English spelling of Latin-derived words, where, for example, Elizabethan –ize endings were turned into –ise following the Latin source words. (This development never took place in the USA, and hence the divergence into two competing spelling standards.)

Now where it comes to accommodating foreign loan words, I cannot think of a language more promiscuous than “our magnificent bastard tongue” (as John McWhorter’s book of the origins of the English language is called). There is, after all, no official body out there with the authority to say words like bungalow or coolie are not proper English: once the loan word becomes sufficiently widely used, it will show up in the major dictionaries just a few years later.

Which is better, prescriptivism or descriptivism? I must admit: I find the faddish millennial abusages [sic] of “like”, “awesome”, “literally”,… as grating as the grumpiest old man among you (perhaps precisely because English is not my mother tongue) — but this is the price we pay for the descriptivist tradition of English. Prescriptivist languages like French and German evolve more slowly and elegantly, at least in the formal register — at the expense of a widening gap between formal (particularly written) and informal usage that may eventually reach the point of full diglossia (the coexistence of separate “literary” and “street” languages, like Classical and Vulgar Latin, or Classical and Koine Greek).

“Pick your poison,” as the expression goes. English, for better or worse, has made its choice.

 

 

 

 

[*] On a related note, post-WW II German avoids certain words and phrases which are perfectly correct German but have forever been tainted by their use in the Third Reich. You would not speak of the Endlösung of a technical or mathematical problem, for instance, or the Sonderbehandlung of special cases, or the Selektion thereof. There even is an entire dictionary devoted to this phenomenon: https://www.perlentaucher.de/buch/thorsten-eitz-georg-stoetzel/woerterbuch-der-vergangenheitsbewaeltigung.html

 

 

 

[**] Relatedly, in Middle Dutch, “kloot” used to mean “globe” or “spherical object”: hence you have Vondel’s “zo draait de wereldkloot” (this is the way the world turns). In modern Dutch, however, “kloot” only means “testicle”, and “klote(n)” is in fact used as an all-purpose expletive much like the F-word in English. Good luck convincing any Dutchman he’s using the word wrong…

 

238 responses to “The evolution of living languages Guest post by Nitay Arbel

  1. “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    –James D. Nicoll

    • Dang, beat me to it.

    • Sometimes English adopts a word because it’s more precisely descriptive than anything already in English.

      Mrs. TRX and I are still watching “The Rockford Files” DVD set. The scriptwriters are fond of slipping in bits of Yiddish. Early in (season 5?) Rockford described himself as a “gantser macher,” which led me to a web search. Yes, in context, more accurate than the usual “fixer.”

      Hey, it’s always a good day when I pick up another bit of Yiddish…

    • And Drloss gets in first, with the quote that MUST be said.

  2. Lots of good stuff here. A few added items from this Dutch immigrant…
    Dutch has long made up lots of words, and unlike French doesn’t seem to suffer from angst about that. Newspapers would publish “new words of the year” each year. I remember a beauty from the 1970s or so: “voordeurdeler” — literally “one who shares the front door”. An exact American equivalent is POSSLQ (look it up for grins). But there are many more.
    Dutch does have a body that decides the official spelling. Unlike other countries, it frequently changes things and doesn’t care one bit for etymology or history.
    A fun aspect of a language to look at is its way of creating new concepts. Take Japanese for example. “electricity” is “lightning force”, which is perfectly logical. Not quite so obvious is “electron”: “lightning child”. Also neat is that the Japanese word for car (automobile) is the exact literal translation of the greek root: “self moving vehicle”.

    • I do wonder, if ever what we now call a ‘time machine’ is made, what it will really be called.

      And there has some confusion when some of the first ATM’s in Wisconsin were “TYME” machines… and in other areas the usage stuck out. “Pardon, could you direct me to the nearest TYME machine?”

      • The proper name for the time machine is provided in China Harbor: Out of Time complete with acronym and scientifically appropriate cartoon sticker.

    • Cajun has some oddities as well. A customer I had was told in France he spoke ” Old, dead French” and other words mean different things “lightbulb, alligator, refrigerator” etc have different words because Cajun don’t follow the French language rules.

      • There is a bit of this in regards to Canadian French as well. If you ever want to really irk many a Frenchman, comment on the fact that Canadian French is closer to classical French (and therefore purer) than France’s spoken French.

        • The guy also argued with a bus load of French folk over what to call an Alligator. “We have called them this since we showed up after leaving Canada, when did you guys decide what to call them?”

      • I’ve always contended that there are only 2 (maybe 3) sentences in French that any American needs to know:

        Je suis Americain. (I am an American.)
        Je pa parle francais. (I don’t speak French [said in non-grammatical {Cajun?} French].)

        And if you’re in Paris, where they dislike you just for being American:

        Parlez-vous l’anglais, la langue du monde? (Do you speak English, the world language?)

        • Nah, they can tell you’re an American and don’t speak French. If you *really* want to annoy a Frenchman, say “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”

          • Did you really mean, “I don’t speak German?” Or did you mean, “Ich spreche kein französisch?”

            • Yes. Being mistaken for a German would trigger quite a few Frenchmen…

              • I did better with German than English in Strasbourg, at least as far as being able to get service as opposed to pointedly ignored (but not *quite* spat upon). But it’s a mixed-heritage city, given the history of the region regardless of what the mapmakers say.

        • You forgot “Deux pressions s’il vous plait, mon copin va payer” (Spellings may be off)

          And BTW that is a vital phrase to lean in ANY language along with “where’s the outhouse/toilet/WC..?” and the slang 1st person plural future subjunctive of the verb to copulate

        • one of my favorite little bit from B5:

    • Strictly speaking jidosha is vehicle not car. the Sha in that (also irritatingly read as Kuruma) is the word for car(t/riage) with remarkably similar uses as both an automobile and a part of a railway train as in English.

  3. “bog-house or outhouse -> privy -> toilet or lavatory -> bathroom -> restroom, WC, washroom”

    Locally – Ki-bo, Honey Bucket, Bucks, …

    • Painted on septic tank pump trucks…

      “Number One in the Number Two Business”

      and (on rear)…

      “CAUTION: Political promises inside”

      • I think it was Joe Griffith whose comedy routine included seeing a plumbing company truck with the slogan on its side. “In our business a flush beats a full house.”

      • Our town’s contract port-a-potty service trucks are labeled ‘9600 pounds of very gross weight’.

    • In the Boy Scouts, Ki-bo is spelled KYBO, for “Keep Your Bowels Open”, or so I was told in ’96 when I went to camp that year.

      • Spelling was never my strength, not without spell checker whining. Since the dictionary didn’t like KYBO, & I never knew what the acronym stood for … (now I do) & yes, it is a scouting reference. Both from Girl Scouts as a kid, & later as an adult leader for my son in Boy Scouts. Plus FWIW, my sisters were in Camp Fire, where I got volunteered, at their day camps, because mom was a volunteer.

        The other two references were the names of the portable unit providers for events. They’ve just taken on (locally) that designation regardless of the current company(s) name now running those businesses.

    • I have no idea how it’s spelled– Oli only says it (and actually I have no idea how to spell Oli– Oe-lee)– but the bivvy or bippy, rather da biddy……

    • This explains Australian English _so_ much. Aussie slang tends to anti-euphemisms. bog-house -> bog. Also loo, crapper, shitter, dunny. It’s only called the toilet in _polite_ company.

      • Weirdly the low class word in Portuguese is MORE euphemistic. Retrete (which I assume comes from the military retreat.) BUT because it’s low class it became “rude.” (Rolls eyes.)

  4. “Which is better, prescriptivism or descriptivism? I must admit: I find the faddish millennial abusages [sic] of “like”, “awesome”, “literally”,… as grating as the grumpiest old man among you”

    I get this way when I’m reading a science fiction book and the author uses ‘sentient’ to mean human-level intelligence. I see it happen so often that I figure it is inevitable that the word will eventually take on that definition. I find that a great shame because there is a reason why computer scientists consider ‘sentience’ to be the holy grail for AI, and it very much isn’t because they want robot overlords.

    • Sentient: Able to feel
      Sophont/Sapient: Able to reason, imagine, doubt.

      Yes, it annoys me too.

      Except I think we should use ‘sophont’ exclusively for the later, reserving ‘sapient’ for something closer to its etymological root of wisdom. That being sophont is something pretty much everyone has down to severely impaired individuals like those with Down’s Syndrome, but wisdom (or ‘sapience’) is something that has to be worked at, for it doesn’t come quite so naturally to us.

      -Albert

      • Yes. I did some research on those definitions myself a couple of years (10!) ago when I had to write a paper on AI, intelligent aliens, and humans; and how we could tell if they were “persons” in the eyes of the law.

      • Actually, a lot of people with Down’s syndrome aren’t all that severely impaired. It’s a common misconception. And even my youngest daughter, who is autistic and has a ‘functioning quotient’ of about 40 (not directly equivalent to an IQ, but probably close), is both sentient and sapient, with an imagination and feelings.

        • Depending on the IQ they’d have had if non Down’s syndrome, Down’s syndrome people can have a normal IQ

        • Let’s just say I’ve seen a large range of functionality, or lack thereof, in various people who have Downs Syndrome. What I can’t find is how the bell curve looks for the entire population. is it a normal curve, or does it skew right or left?

          • Given the health issues involved and how treatment and how quickly you get it (if you do) can seriously screw that stuff up, how on earth could you get an untainted sample?

          • I realize that some people with Down’s are quite severely impaired, I was just saying that they aren’t always that way. It’s a similar situation with autism — some people with autism are quite bright and are able to finish college and live independently. Others are even worse off than my daughter, who — though she would never be able to live independently — can at least talk a little and do some things for herself. When she’s feeling well (not having a lupus flare) she’s a sweet person to be around, with a sense of humor, enjoying art and music and stories (and the Bible) read aloud to her. She loves going to museums. She’s a person, even though she isn’t a highly functioning person. She loves me and her dad and her sisters and her Grandma and other people in her life, and so on — even though she can’t read or write or count past about three (sometimes to four, if she’s having a good day), and needs help with a lot of daily living tasks, she is still a person. My opinion is that IQ isn’t nearly as important as character. I’ve seen people on another forum making derogatory comments on the low average IQ’s in various African countries (one country has an average IQ in their population of around 60), and my thought on that is, fine, but are they good people? Do they have good character? Are they functioning independently — taking care of their families and holding jobs and so on? Sure, a high IQ is a good thing to have — if you also have good character. But IQ isn’t necessarily an indicator of character.

            (Sorry — kind of got off onto a rant there!)

            • Is a very worthy rant!

              Oddly enough, I seem to remember at least one major theologican– may have been a father of the Church– had a rather similar one, and I seem to remember some folks have figured that being intelligent is actually a determent to holiness exactly because you can think yourself in circles and get all snooty about how it makes you better, rather than realizing it lets you DO stuff better.

              • For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.” Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?

            • IQ really only does one thing fairly well, and that’s predict whether a person is able to do well in college or not. And even then personal drive and discipline have a major impact on performance there.

    • “I get this way when I’m reading a science fiction book and the author uses ‘sentient’ to mean human-level intelligence.”

      This happens because the authors don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. They think “machine learning” means the machine is a thinking being that learns things. Machines don’t learn. They have software that modifies itself based on external inputs.

      Machines don’t remember. When we talk about “computer memory” its not “memory”, its data storage. Every time a robot performs a function, its the first time as far as it is concerned. The dice do not remember, and neither do machines.

      Lately the media generally are robot-crazy, actively encouraging this “sentience” mistake. Machines are like dice, not humans.

      • > They have software that modifies itself based on external inputs.

        Compared to Liberals operating by ideology, that puts the machines at genius-level learning…

        “That never worked before…”

        “It must! The tides of History are with us! Oh, and by the way, report to the Happiness Camp for re-education…”

      • Whereas we remember remembering. So we would have to modify the computer program to store the fact that it accessed that information n times where n is incremented each time it’s accessed; and do that for every piece of information.

        But humans rarely remember the exact number of times they’ve remembered something, only that they’ve done it before, a few times, or many times before.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Of course, there are situations where “what we remember” isn’t “what we read” or “what actually happened”.

          This “blurring” of memory may keep us sane (or near sane).

          I wonder if true AIs could handle completely accurate memories of “what actually happened” especially if they feel emotions and could remember their “fear” from the last time they went into a dangerous situation.

          • I don’t think we need machines with PTSD, do we?

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              We may not “need” it but the world has a habit of giving us what we don’t want and/or what we don’t need. 😈

            • A good argument for implementing AI with fuzzylogic, where values such as “many” instead of “1000” can actually be used to make logical decisions. Similarly, to put expanding ranges of uncertainty upon “old” data.

          • Didn’t Asimov write several robot stories where his AIs actually did go insane, or the equivalent of comatose?

          • I had an acquaintance years ago who claimed to have perfect memory. He described it as being rather horrible since he could remember, in absolutely perfect detail, every bad thing that he had ever seen or had ever happened to him, as if it had just happened.

      • “Three things are most perilous:
        Connectors that corrode,
        Unproven algorithms,
        And self-modifying code.”

        Frank Hayes, Threes revision 1.1

    • “Like” and “awesome” being overused goes back well before millennials. Back in 6th Grade my teacher had a unit on using “like” instead of “said”, or its equivalents, that used an old textbook from the early ’70s. We were also admonished not to use “awesome” and “ain’t”.

    • Given how screwy the definition of “intelligence” is, would that be any better?

      I just take it in the sense that they aren’t mechanically responding.

    • And so hard to root out. . . .

  5. There is of course the classic example where somewhere in the early sixties if I recall correctly the term “gay” was appropriated by people of a certain disposition and no longer simply meant innocently happy.

    • I’m more annoyed by the appropriation of the term “confirmed bachelor.” I have other words I can use for happy people, but I dislike the fact that I don’t have a simple phrase to say, “This is an unmarried person whom everyone has accepted at this point will never marry.” And even worse, anyone who tries to use the term in the older sense is accused of appropriating it from homosexuals!

      And yes, I know that historically a number of the “confirmed bachelors” probably were gay, but certainly not all of them, any more than all unmarried people now are.

    • “gay” appears in Bringing Up Baby (1938) where Cary Grant seems to be using it to describe cross dressing and/or homosexuality. When answering the door in a woman’s housecoat/robe he says to the person questioning his choice of attire, “I suddenly turned gay,” if I remember the quote correctly.

      • Not quite the right turn of phrase, but excuse enough to look up the clip:


        “I just went gay all of a sudden!”

        Actual meaning of the phrase is in doubt, possibly intended as in-joke expected to fly above heads of most audience members, possibly merely the reference point from which the modern usage was adopted.

        Anyone needing the situation explained needs to see the whole hilarious movie and not pester their elders.

        Wiki sayeth:
        It is debated by some whether Bringing Up Baby is the first fictional work (apart from pornography) to use the word gay in a homosexual context. In one scene, Cary Grant’s character is wearing a woman’s marabou-trimmed négligée; when asked why, he replies exasperatedly “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” (leaping into the air at the word gay). As the term gay did not become familiar to the general public until the Stonewall riots in 1969, it is debated whether the word was used here in its original sense (meaning “happy”) or is an intentional, joking reference to homosexuality.

        In the film, the line was an ad-lib by Grant and not in any version of the original script. According to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet (1981, revised 1987), the script originally had Grant’s character say “I…I suppose you think it’s odd, my wearing this. I realize it looks odd…I don’t usually…I mean, I don’t own one of these”. Russo suggests that this indicates that people in Hollywood (at least in Grant’s circles) were familiar with the slang connotations of the word; however, neither Grant nor anyone involved in the film suggested this.

        The 1933 film My Weakness had previously used the word “gay” as an overt descriptor of homosexuality; one of two men pining away for the same woman suddenly suggests a solution to their mutual problem: “Let’s be gay!” However, the Studio Relations Committee censors decreed that the line was too risqué and had to be muffled. The 1934 film This Side of Heaven included a scene in which a fussy, gossipy interior decorator tries to sell a floral fabric pattern to a customer, who knowingly replies, “It strikes me as a bit too gay.”

    • It was never innocently happy. It used to have a slang term of “prostitute.” Eh.

      • Gives the “Gay ’90s” a whole new interpretation, that…

      • Not sure I’ll ever be able to sing the Christmas carol Deck the Halls with a straight face ever again,

        “Don we now our gay apparel”

        LOL!!! I’ve never heard “gay” having anything to do with prostitution. (note: Not saying you’re wrong, just that I hadn’t heard of that. But then, I grew up on a small farm in the middle of nowhere Fly-Over country.)

        • Primary sources from the Victorian age did that to me…
          Of course my entire family camps up the “gay” in gay apparel anyway, causing strangers to look at us funny.

        • I have a translation of the Japanese play Chushingura (“The 47 Ronin”), in which “gay quarters” is used to refer to “red-light district”. The play dates from 1750; the translation is modern. I don’t know if “gay quarters” is a literal translation.

          BTW, in the 1950s the Royal Navy built an entire “Gay” class of patrol boats, including Gay Lancer, Gay Corsair, and Gay Bruiser. Then there was the Hong Kong shipowners’ firm that named their containerships with combinations of celestial bodies – for instance, Saturn’s large moon and the seventh planet – TITAN URANUS. Really.

        • Lincoln, in a spirit of antithesis, spoke of “the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions” so it carried at least the connotation of “not serious” or “frivolous.”

      • I’ve seen it used for exuberant joy, which goes with the both the prostitute and flashy homosexual meaning if they tended to be, um, garbed to grab attention– while also matching gay apparel. (Christmas sweater contest, go!)

        • There was a French expression: gaie en le cuisse, happy in the thigh. It meant someone who was loose, particularly female prostitutes but also males and non-professional persons of both sexes.

  6. Lately, the introduction of the word “yeet”, as in “I’m gonna yeet myself right out a window” or the kid in the hallway at highschool yelling “YEET!” at the top of his lungs and then laughing and running away.

    What does it mean? Nothing! It literally means nothing. But it is going to, in a couple more years, if it doesn’t die off.

    Like “mook”. It’s a meaningless word from a movie. But now it means something. You call somebody a mook, them’s fightin’ words.

    • I just don’t grok why somebody would yeet the mook.

    • Hm. Rex Stout used “smook” in 1948. John Connolly used “mook” in 1999. Graham Masterton 2006. Andrew Vachss 2007. Tim Dorsey 2013. Loren D. Estleman 1999. Clive Cussler 1990. Carl Hiaassen 2013.

      Most of them only used it a few times in one or two books, then not in later books.

      I would have sworn I’d seen it in some old Mickey Spillane stories, but grep didn’t find any hits, nor with Chandler, Westlake, Prather, or any of the other old timers.

      Dunno about movie usage; I’m woefully deficient in modern video culture.

      • “Gunsel” is an interesting example of a word acquiring a meaning:

        noun US slang
        1. a catamite
        2. a stupid or inexperienced person, esp a youth
        3. a criminal who carries a gun

        Word Origin and History for gunsel
        n.
        1914, American English, from hobo slang, “a catamite;” specifically “a young male kept as a sexual companion, especially by an older tramp,” from Yiddish genzel, from German Gänslein “gosling, young goose.” The secondary, non-sexual meaning “young hoodlum” seems to be entirely traceable to Dashiell Hammett, who sneaked it into “The Maltese Falcon” (1929) while warring with his editor over the book’s racy language.

        “Another thing,” Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: “Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.”

        The context implies some connection with gun and a sense of “gunman,” and evidently the editor bought it. The word was retained in the script of the 1941 movie made from the book, so evidently the Motion Picture Production Code censors didn’t know it either.

        The relationship between Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) and his young hit-man companion, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.), is made fairly clear in the movie, but the overt mention of sexual perversion would have been deleted if the censors hadn’t made the same mistaken assumption as Hammett’s editor. [Hugh Rawson, “Wicked Words,” 1989, p.184]

        https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gunsel

        • “Catamite” was a word I had trouble figuring out, even though I sometimes encountered it in rather explicit use.

          The problem was, the first time I encountered it was in a book where the
          appropriate word would likely have been “cataMOUNT”, which means something rather different. To make it even harder to unstick, you can build a progression of slang from catamount -> pussycat -> what catamites are used for. [sigh]

          Hard to tell if the author misused the word, or some editor “corrected” it…

        • thephantom182

          Pogue is another one like that. It’s been taken to mean REMF but that’s not what it used to mean.

        • My take on THE MALTESE FALCON book vs film was that the studio was scared of making Wilmer too obviously homosexual, and in consequence cast Peter Lorre who played the ‘creepy little killer’ theme to the hilt, thus creating the impression that the character might be a necrophiliac.

    • Thanks for reminding me to clean my glasses. I read “YEET” and I thought I saw “YEATS” and couldn’t figure out the context.

    • “I’m gonna yeet myself right out a window” or the kid in the hallway at highschool yelling “YEET!” at the top of his lungs and then laughing and running away.

      Someone yelling “YEET!” at me at the top of his lungs would definitely result in me wanting to “yeet” someone at a window, though I doubt it would be myself.

      Then again, I’ve been middle aged and grumpy my whole life. I’ve finally achieved my dream of getting a lawn, now I just need the kids to show up so I can tell them to get off it.

      • Or…you could point to a specific place in the lawn, and say, “You know, you’d fit that place quite well…”; or, “There’s room for you right there…”
        Ah, reminiscing about the good old days.

      • I’ve finally achieved my dream of getting a lawn, now I just need the kids to show up so I can tell them to get off it.

        Sadly, you have missed your window of opportunity. Kids these days, with their X-Station Play Boxes, only go on on virtual lawns.

        • Yup, these days only the neighbor’s dogs go on your actual lawn.

          • Not if you raise your lawn up a couple of feet … that keeps dogs & kids off it (ours is on the way to the school). We so need to find property & build our dream home (“downsizing” to single level). Current home would sell fast. Near grade school, just off the busy street with the school, with decent yard. We just have never figured out where, exactly.

      • thephantom182

        Congratulations on unlocking “Lawn” achievement. ~:D

        Next up, “Lawnmower” followed by “Lawnmower repair”. Ultimate achievement is “Landscapers.”

        I have maxed-out my Lawnmower achievement. Fairway mower.

        • My “lawn” gets the 5-foot brush-hog treatment a few times a year. Well, we have a grassy area, but calling it a lawn would cause the ground squirrels, badgers and rabbits to keel over laughing. I have to be careful to avoid some of the bigger holes when mowing. The hawks are slacking off, I fear. (Seen a couple of years ago: a largish hole in the meadow, surrounded by an ungodly amount of hawk poop. “The meals deliver themselves!”)

    • No, no. You inquire,” Yeet yet?”
      Reply, “Nope.”
      First speaker, “Wanna bite?”
      Reply,” Yep” or “Nope, thanks,” depending on personal desire.

    • O frabjous day.

  7. Oh, I definitely prefer descriptive over prescriptive. That may be my libertarian or rebel streak showing though. Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do, you statist mofo! But there are times that it really, really bugs me. The recent evolution of “literally” to mean actually figuratively grates on me like fingernails on a chalk board. In fact, when someone uses it instead of “figuratively” I tend to start disregarding everything they say. Same with “Nazi” and a couple of others.

    I must still be reading too many older books, because “queer” to me still primarily means unusual. Fagot still means a small bundle of wood, or a MiG-15 fighter. And if someone starts getting upset about “niggardly” being a racial epithet I can pretty well discount their entire argument as being ignorant. And there’s another word that people continue to use improperly.

    • How far back is “recent”? My Mom used “I died, I literally died!” as a common expression at least from the early 1970s, when I got Parental Displeasure from correcting her. My grandmother used it the same way.

      So “literally” becomes another not-quite-word, whose meaning can’t be quite fixed even in context…

      • I’ve only noticed its usage about the last 10 years or so.

      • In C.S. Lewis’s “Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger” (November, 1958), he says:
        To one of the charges Dr Norman Pittenger makes . . . I must with shame plead guilty. He has caught me using the word ‘literally’ where I didn’t really mean it, a vile journalistic cliché which he can’t reprobate more severely than I now do myself.

        By which I figure the usage was old in 1958, and far too easy to fall into. Even if not officially accepted.

      • I ran across the “literally ~ figuratively” confusion around 1970, myself. I try to avoid using the word, though when I do, it’s in the ancient usage.

        Grumble, idiots destroying the utility of a perfectly good word.

    • I’ve been known to say, “Is that a real word? I said it, you understood what I meant, this is English, all that makes it a real word.”

    • “Literally” is another one of those that bugs me because there really isn’t another word to describe what’s going on there. If “I literally saved his bacon,” just means “I really, really helped him out,” then what am I supposed to use for the time when I noticed that the smoker was still on just before we left the house, thus allowing my husband to get his homemade bacons off before they burnt?

      • “Literally” is another one of those that bugs me because there really isn’t another word to describe what’s going on there.

        “Totally” might work, if you find the risk of sounding like a late 80’s Valley Girl acceptable.

    • I heard an ex-military Brit relate that when he was teaching a class to some American service members, he said, “Let’s break for 5 minutes, so feel free to go out and have a fag.” He was perplexed. by the startled looks he got back.

    • Would using “niggardly” incorrectly show one to be “nignorant”?

  8. English has no such prescriptive body.

    If it did, would anybody follow it or would they go mad from frustration?

    • Sure they do. The Manhattanite textbook publishing industry, which knows precisely what the English language should be, and uses the educational industry as their enforcers.

      Unfortunately none of the textbook publishers quite agree, and in most of the country their idea of “proper English” is risibly stilted.

      No, we don’t have to go as far as Ebonics, but when you’re telling 75% or more of the country they’re incorrect, You’re Doing It Wrong.

  9. I’m occasionally an English grammar and spelling Nazi. But I’m much more likely to take a misspelling literally, or with a defined alternate meaning and turn it into an awful, terrible, no good, very bad, pun. And don’t let me get started on acronyms or abbreviations. I love substituting my own words for 3 and 4 letter departments.

  10. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Just a chuckle at my self.

    I could have sworn that I had heard the term “holocaust” used in reference to heating Ancient Roman homes.

    However, what I was thinking about is “hypocaust”. 😀

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypocaust

    • Isn’t holocaust the result when the hypocaust goes holistic?

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        I think you meant something besides “holistic”.

        IE Holistic means “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts.”

        https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/holistic

        • Oh dear.

          A: I should have included a 🙂
          B: IMHO, a holistic hypocaust entails the heating of the entire structure, as in a fully involved fire, thus a holocaust.
          C: I keep trying to avoid using hypercaust. [Cue Doctor Strangelove’s hand.]

    • Isn’t “hypocaust” what we’ve been seeing with coverage of Nathan “Try Bull Elder” Phillips and the Covington Catholic Boys? Immolation of personal reputation by Gaslight Media lynch mob?

  11. So are we good with singular “they,” which has been around since the Renaissance?

    • Good with it? No. Resigned to it, yes.

      • Literally resigned to it, figuratively resigned to it, or figuratively literally resigned to it? 😉

      • Fuck no. It’s prescriptive. It’s from the top. The left comes up with fucking stupid ideas to justify it. They’ll win for maybe ten years and then the more precise language will come back.
        Look, people have created a PLURAL YOU to make the language more precise. And yet the idiots think they’ll get away with no singular third person because sexism?
        AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!

        • I know you know this, Sarah, but “you” was always the plural. The singular was “thou.” It was only after the use of “you” for the singular in formal language (in analogy to the German use of “Sie” for formal singular second person and “du” for familiar singular second person, while “Sie” was plural second person in both cases) became the standard usage that another formulation for the plural second person became necessary.

          And that plural isn’t uniform, as it’s “y’all” here in the southern US, “yunz” in western PA, and probably numerous other variants elsewhere.

          • kind of. You was formal. Thou was familiar. I.e. it was complicated before there was any formalized grammar.
            You guys is also used. But people MAKE a plural because it’s more precise.
            Meanwhile the mavens of correctness are trying to make language less precise.
            They don’t win in the end.

            • thephantom182

              I just flashed on a time traveler saying “thou guys” instead of “you guys.” Bwaha, I crack me up!

            • That’s why the Quakers insisted on using “thou” long after it faded from everyday speech. It showed the equality of all men and women.

          • btw, when there’s a formal and informal form, the formal tends to win out because it’s aspirational.
            BUT in Portugal in my lifetime it went the other way. No idea why. Well, ideas, but not good ones.

            • Went that way in Russian too, from what I’ve read. “Aspirational” probably didn’t sit well with those who told the proletariant what to do.

          • It is pretty common in Indo-European languages to have a formal singular 2nd and a familiar singular 2nd, and to have the formal one to be a repurposed version of 2nd person plural.

          • Yunz is pronounced “yinz” in some places. A friend from Maryland said it that way.

        • If they don’t want to be “he” or “she” we already have a perfectly good neutral pronoun: “it.” I’m fine with calling them “it.”

          • That gives a whole new meaning to “Tag, you’re it.”

          • Right? That’s what I think.

          • Linguistically it really doesn’t work. “He” and “she” are +animate; they imply a being capable of agency. “It” is -animate.

            And singular “they” has been around for centuries, since long before anyone thought of feminism or transgenderedness or any contemporary ideologies. Reacting to it on the basis of whatever you may think of those ideologies is clueless.

            • If you’ve talked to those who refuse both “he” and “she”, -animate is fairly accurate; “it” still stands.

            • BobtheRegisterredFool

              Failure to be transphobic is offensive to my culture. In my culture, we a) use it as the appropriate translation for the Latin singular neuter b) deliberately and malicious dehumanize people like Manning by referring to them individually as it.

              Additionally,

              Salafi Necandi Sunt.

            • “He” and “she” are +animate; they imply a being capable of agency. “It” is -animate.

              It that why it makes sense to refer to a generic (young) child as “it”?

          • Someone should write a novel where the AI uses it for everyone.

        • I’m still mad at losing the intimate “thee” and “thou” in hymns.

        • I’m California born, raised, and career, and even I know the singular is “y’all” and the plural is “all y’all”.

          Yeesh.

          • thephantom182

            I thought the plural was “all a’ y’all.” ~:D

          • Only for pretend southerners, son…

            • There’s also “you guys” which I learned in Ohio as an exchange student. 😛

              • Also can be “Youz Guys”. especially up here.

                • Chicago area flipped between you and youz. IIRC, people living on da sout’ side of Chicaga (spelling as pronounced) favored ‘youz’.

                  FWIW(1), the Des Plaines river (and associated town) is pronounced as two distinct words; “Dess” and “planes”. That drives my wife crazy, who thinks it ought to be pronounced as if it were a French word. Nope, it’s been too long since the trappers moved on.

                  FWIW(2): I was told by a resident that the proper pronunciation for Cairo, Illinois has it sounding like “Karo”. I don’t know if it changed since the ’70s. I’ve never been there, and it’s not on my bucket list to change that. 🙂

                  • K-row it is, according to Gaiman’s American Gods, which has a sequence set there and makes a point of the pronunciation. I am confident that, were he wrong, it would have been publicly noted.

                  • It was Karoe when I was near it in the late ’50s.

                    • Yeah, that seemed to be the preferred pronunciation in the ’70s. Folks upstate tried calling it K-row, but it didn’t go over very well. 🙂 The 300+ miles from north to south meant a lot at that time. Probably even more so with the People’s Republic of Cook County running the state gummint.

                  • This reminds me to bring up the towns in neighboring Indiana, like Pee-roo (Peru)and Verr-sails (Versailles).

                  • My sister’s ex-college-roommates. From very wealthy old east coast money. At sister’s wedding reception asked who I was & where we were from … so, Washington (only I pronounced it Warshington). They asked “how do you spell that”. Realizing how I’d pronounced it, responded “W A R S H …”. Hubby can pull that on me, maybe my sisters, they do, frequently, just not publicly … anyone else, no, just no.

                    • 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

                      Better.

                    • I’ve heard transplants pronounce it that way. Now I know.

                      (Gramma Pete came from Ioway.)

                    • Well. How do we Oregonian’s pronounce Oregon?

                      It isn’t Ore-gone.

                      It is Ori-gun or Ori-guhn.

                    • My uncle had that on his bumper-sticker.

                      He also had a rifle in the back window. (In the San Diego area. Loooooong time ago.)

                      Guy filling his pickup asked “Is that an Ori?”
                      Uncle: “What?”
                      Guy: “In your window. Your sticker says ori-gun, I wanted to know if that was one.”
                      Uncle, after along delay: “Oh, yes. It’s always there so I don’t really think about it.”

                    • If the state legislature goes gun-grabbing, will it have to be pronounced Ori-gun-gone?

                    • Um, Uh, yea, sure, to idiots. You really believe gun confiscation, oops, I mean registration, or ammunition limitation, will work any better here in Oregon than it has in Chicago, or New York, or anywhere else it’s been tried?

                      I don’t know of anyone, ever, who has actually bought ammunition from stores, & no one I know that actually has guns, is short of ammunition. A lot of self loaders around here. In fact as a kid I thought that is how you got ammunition, you didn’t buy it.

                    • I can’t convince my Illinois relatives to drop the Oregone version.

                      In the ’70s, a coworker came from Oregon and did her damndest to teach us the right pronunciation. It took.

                    • Ore-gone: when the mines have all played out?

                    • I haven’t been hand-loading in forever, but the shelf life of what I made and still have is long enough.

                      OTOH, I sold off a bunch of the useful bits when I ran into money problems several years ago. I need to evaluate what I have and make a purchase list.

                      On the gripping hand, I’m not short of what I really need. VBEG

                    • “You really believe gun confiscation, oops, I mean registration, or ammunition limitation, will work any better here in Oregon than it has in Chicago, or New York, or anywhere else it’s been tried?”

                      That’s not its’ intention. It intends to keep you from practicing with it with any sort of convenience, and subject to arrest if you try. Oh, it’s also intended to keep you from using to defend yourself against any Party clients that happen to coincidentally show up at your door if you’re too “outspoken” for your own good (see Carlson, Tucker). (I know, I know, I’m delusional to think those clients could be organized enough for that kind of Fourth Generation warfare. My bad.)

                      Finally, it works quite well in keeping your kids from being taught how to handle one, and likely to turn it in as soon as you can’t manage your own affairs for any reason. Or file a “red-flag” complaint the next time they’re grounded.

                      At those things, it works quite well.

                  • Been through Cairo several times, and yeah, the folk there say it as Karo (Care-O, like the syrup)

                  • Don’t forget the Texas towns of Elgin (‘ELG-in, with a hard ‘g’) and Palestine (PAL-es-teen). Also, the western Kansas pronunciation of the Arkansas (ar-KAN-suhs) River, which changes in pronunciation to ARK-an-saw) once it crosses the border into Oklahoma. The western state of Nevada (nuh-VAE-duh, the AE as the ‘a’ in ‘cat’). Madrid (MAH-drid) and Regina (reh-GYNE-uh) are in New Mexico. The Spanish influence is city names in that state also confuses people. On an audiobook my wife and I once listened to, the towns of Mesilla (meh-SEE-yuh) and Raton (rah-TONE) were pronounced by the reader as meh-SILL-uh and RAY-tun!

                    • My first visit to California I applied Chicago standards to La Jolla’s name. You mean the jay is an haitch, and the two ells come out wye? Oops. (Three years of high school German don’t do much for romance language skills. 🙂 )

                      OTOH, said friend tried to pronounce Tahquamenon Falls (in Michigan’s UP, NW of Sault St. Marie) as T-aqua-men-on. As best as I could tell, locals used ta-QUA-men-on

                    • Three years of high school German don’t do much for romance language skills.

                      The Germans, a very frugal people, tend to pronounce ALL letters in their words. This puts them at odds with the Romantic peoples, especially the French (who tend to put extraneous vowels in their words just to expose foreigners … and make the concluding “s” in a word silent, for similar purpose.)

                    • I’ll just say:
                      Washington. Indian names.
                      There will be three different ways of saying it, by locals, in a town– and they’ll all jump on anybody who says different, but there will be a pet horrible REALLY only folks out of the area use it. Which will usually be the sane way of saying the name….

                  • I was there about ten years ago. They were pretty insistent it was “Kay-ro.”

                    Should you ever have the neeed to visit El Dorado, Arkansas, the locals don’t pronounce that as you’d expect, either.

          • Geoff Withnell

            Actually, in the Carolinas, “y’all” is plural, and “all y”all” is emphatic or hostile plural, as in “all y’all can kiss my butt”

    • Except it hasn’t, William. That’s bullshit. Yes, Shakespeare used it ONCE to make rhythm.
      That’s a good example of prescriptive, in fact harrassative (totally a word) language.
      It makes NO BLOODY SENSE. Sure, when the gender is indeterminate (but then ONE works too and already exists.)
      But when you say “that man they did this” which I’m seeing in professionally edited books? That’s just bullshit. And wrong. Because it makes language stupid and imprecise.

      • I would not use “one” for that purpose. It’s too formal for most contexts. It’s not like French, where “on” is in everyday use.

        I edit a lot of scholarly journals that will no longer tolerate “he” for a generic human pronoun. Almost without exception, their style guides require me to do one of three things: say “he or she” (clunky, especially if you do it four or five times on a page!), rephrase in the plural (doesn’t always fit the meaning), or rewrite to avoid using any pronouns at all (there’s a reason we have pronouns, dammit). None of these, nor all of them together, really solve the problem they’ve created for themselves.

        I started thinking about this back in the 1970s, when feminists first started being bothered by generic “he”—and came up with a vast range of new alternatives, from Marge Piercy’s almost tolerable “person/per/pers/perself” (but then Piercy is a poet, so she might be expected to have a little linguistic sensitivity) to absurd neologisms that it wasn’t even clear how to pronounce. And I wondered at the people who were prepared to defy centuries of law and custom, but could not bring themseles to use an indeterminate-gender pronoun that already existed in English and that every native speaker had heard and understood. Or maybe that was the problem for them.

        Sure, you can make up examples of awkward and confusing usage. But if I said, “If anyone asks for me, tell them I took the day off,” the meaning would be completely clear. And my professional bias is that the real purpose of grammatical rules is to achieve clarity.

        • If the real purpose of communication is to achieve clarity, then the traditional use of “he” as the indeterminate third person singular pronoun is clearly the best way to do so. I’m sorry your journals’ style manuals require you to use gratingly imprecise language because of their fear of being politically incorrect.

          • The simpler and less troublesome solution would seem to be use of “it” as the indeterminate third person singular pronoun, on grounds it is less wrong (does less damage to grammar, and Lord knows she’s already suffered a’plenty.)

            • I’m fine with that too, although it would still seem a bit jarring I think: “If anyone asks for me, tell it I took the day off.”

          • Seriously, no actual English speaker ever misunderstands the ways in which “they” has traditionally been used as a singular. The rule against it is like the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition: A grammatical formalism.

      • But when you say “that man they did this” which I’m seeing in professionally edited books? That’s just bullshit. And wrong.

        Not intending to be disagreeable, but it does serve a very useful purpose. It flags the author as a fashion-following idjit and serves as a cue to read something else.

    • Well, we could try substituting the German “Ihr” instead. At least it wouldn’t be a homonym then. On the other hand, that would mess up a lot of poetry.

  12. Don’t ask me – I’ve got to use a translator to understand anything written by someone under the age of 30 or so. Now, if only Google Translate would include that as an option…

    • I use DuckDuckGo for generational translations. If I get really stuck (and am feeling somewhat reckless), I’ll go to urbandictionary dot com. Note that mind bleach might be necessary.

  13. Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, Network News….

  14. “America. All your words are belong to U.S.”

  15. What about the intentional manipulation of language? Or the application of descriptive language in law?

    A professor/lawyer buddy of mine, who is – shock of shocks – a living constitutionalist and ardent anti-textualist/originalist because of “how language works”. Of course, when claiming that only white people could be racist because that’s how the word was originally intended, rather than point out that that would mean the word could only apply to white South Africans (or that that wasn’t how English worked), I applauded her for holding such a strict textualist/originalist view on the matter.

    She didn’t find that nearly as amusing as I did.

    • My sentence got fragged!

    • So her contention is that the meaning of the Constitution must change as the common meaning of the words used change, rather than that the meaning of the sentences and clauses in the Constitution must be taken to be what a literate person of the day would have understood it to mean, when the sentences were written? That’s insane. Yes, I know it’s the standard leftist claim, but it’s still insane.

      • Yes. There’s a whole society of them.

        https://www.acslaw.org/about-us/

        Stop and ponder this gem:

        “ACS was founded on the principle that the law should be a force to improve the lives of all people.”

        • So they want the law to be a big stick with which to club anyone who disagrees with them, rather than a set of rules everyone must abide by in a civil society. How very leftist of them…

        • The only rationally and logically valid method of interpreting the Constitution is the Original Public Meaning method, where the “original public meaning” of a constitutional provision is what those who ratified the Constitution would have understood it to have. Neither the secret personal intentions of the individual Founders, nor their collective intentions, nor even the intentions of those who participated in the ratifying conventions matter under this approach. All that matters is how people understood the written words of the Constitution at the time it was adopted. For amendments adopted later, OPM would mean the understanding at the time of the ratification of each amendment.

          • I’m in the choir, Pastor!

            This is why Leftist manipulation of language (activist descriptivism?) is a big deal. Well, one of the reasons anyway.

            • The other is that all their changes lead to us not being able to express what they don’t want expressed.
              Hence, cheery middle fingers waving from my office today.

              • Exactly – on the mostly-correct presumption that what you can’t express, you can’t even think.
                Thus the real thought-crime: killing thoughts you don’t approve of.

                • ” killing thoughts you don’t approve of.”
                  Killing me thoughtly with your words, killing me thoughtly..

              • Your mention of “cheery middle fingers waving” just inspired me to buy the Kindle version of Waldo & Magic, Inc.
                Thank you!

                • Why had you waited to buy it?

                • “Magic, Inc.” riffed off “Murder, Inc.” which was topical news when Heinlein wrote it. That was Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel’s murder-for-hire outfit. But Unknown decided to run the story in the same issue as another story that *also* riffed off Murder, Inc., so they renamed Heinlein’s story “The Devil Makes the Law.” In reprints it was always “Magic, Inc.” as far as I know.

          • There is also available a significant body of judicial philosophy, case law, and precedent upon which to draw: “Original Public Meaning” is consistent with the basic principle of interpreting contracts according to the meaning of the terms as understood by the parties at the time of the formation of the contract.

            • And our Constitution is at base a contract between the states and the nascent federal government, with the people as an interested third party.

          • “The only rationally and logically valid method of interpreting the Constitution is the Original Public Meaning method, where the “original public meaning” of a constitutional provision is what those who ratified the Constitution would have understood it to have. ”

            To which the reply has always been: “OK, how many slaves / Indians / insert current marginalized group here were actually involved in ratifying it even though they were living under it’s jurisdiction? That would be none, you Evile White Racist You, so Your Constitution and any laws based on it that I don’t like are invalid and don’t apply to me unless I want them to.”

            At which point the only question is who has more guns and more willingness to use them.

        • and if someone or several someones believe(s) improvement is a simple thing involving shooting everyone in this society in the head, then they’re good with that.

      • thephantom182

        “…the Constitution must change as the common meaning of the words used change…”

        …but only when this is convenient for Leftists. That’s the most important part.

  16. That would be like saying the meaning of my morning constitutional has to change.

  17. Prescriptive/descriptive? Another case of AND being better.
    After all, it makes zero sense to expect people to use stilted language to describe everyday, contemporary events – one of the tendencies of language evolution, it seems to me, is toward the easier/lazier formulation.
    And yet – our history is described in language; to lose the meanings of words is to lose our history, or at least to make it inaccessible to all but the specialist.
    Thus do I appreciate the OED and others that attempt to give etymology; and thus would I also remind folk, from time to time, of the original meaning of “decimate”.
    Oh, and “holocaust”? I believe I’ve seen it casually used in news reports of modern fire disasters, so the original sense is not all lost. Indeed, the metaphoric use to describe the WWII mass killings I generally see in the form “The Holocaust”, as opposed to holocaust. So that may not be the most apposite example.

  18. There is another aspect to words, this can best be described as a map to a “real” place. Words are a map of what they try to describe. Otherwise words are only dragons drawn on a map to illustrate ignorance.

    Some examples are Joy and happiness. Similar, but profoundly different. Best expressed by this statement: I cannot be happy my son has died of cancer, but I can be joyful, because Joy is not affected by circumstances. True Love, Joy, Peace and Hope are infinities that can and cannot be understood by us finite creatures.

    Quantum mechanics is full of words that struggle to describe a reality we cannot comprehend, yet is “real”. We send photons through slits. What do we see? Theology is full of other paradoxes that don’t fit in our word boxes. How do we draw word maps that reflect reality?

  19. An excellent and welcome article. (I enjoyed the link to Swift’s “Proposal” as edited by a Rutgers professor whom I have known since high school.) One of my central doctrines of language is “words don’t have meanings (so much as) they have uses”. Two people might employ the same word, but they not be expressing the same thing. How each *uses* the word is the primary consideration. This helps avoid the “etymological fallacy”, when people play the “this word comes from Latin such and such, therefore some of the meaning of that Latin root is implied in this word”. No.

  20. Captain Comic

    You forgot the utterly horrifying ethnic slur “ChiCom” so flippantly bandied about on this very blog.

    It’s a good thing I’m typing instead of talking. Tongue that hard in cheek messes with enunciation.

    • Seriously, dude? “Tongue that hard in cheek messes with enunciation.“?

      You need to work on your muttering.

      • Captain Comic

        Point taken. In the future I will endeavour to be somewhat less sesquipedalian in my choices vis-a-vis erudition.

        • You made me look up a word!!! “Sesquipedalian”, not that I’ll be able to pronounce it, ever (& no the definition tries, but I’m just horrible, I have to hear it spoken to get close.)

          What is it called when your reading vocabulary is larger than your speaking or ability to pronounce?

          AND WP doesn’t know how to spell it (I copied it to look it up & paste here, so I know it is correct).

          • “What is it called when your reading vocabulary is larger than your speaking or ability to pronounce?”

            In this crowd, normal.

            • I know I lot of words I’ve never heard anyone use.

              Looking them up in the dictionary is useless, because it will only tell me how some Manhattanite thought they *ought* to be pronounced half a century ago… if I’m going to sound foolish to anyone who knows better, it might as well be by my own efforts.

            • 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

              Love it!

            • Most people have larger reading than speaking vocabularies — with writing being intermediate.

      • The important thing is to mutter “mutiny” very badly so you and the crew can surprise the Captain…

    • You’re going to need surgery to remove your tongue from your cheek.

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  22. I recommend C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. To everyone.

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