Why We Should All Just Chill Out About Language Change

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As I’ve said many times on this blog: language changes. English evolves over time. That’s why the Beowulf poet wrote stuff like this:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon¹.

While Chaucer wrote this kind of English:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…²

And Shakespeare wrote like this:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Beowulf is an example of Old English, Chaucer of Middle English, and Shakespeare of modern English, though of an earlier period than today. It’s clear from these examples that English transforms over the centuries.

Words grow archaic and obsolete. We no longer use words like thee and thou, puissant, contumelious, or welkin. Is this tragic? I don’t think so. We’ve simply replaced them with other words.

Words change in meaning. In the 14th century, awful meant “inspiring awe.” Husband once meant only “home or land owner.” And until quite recently gay had nothing to do with sexual orientation.

And words are created. The last decade has brought us words like carjack, flash mob, hashtag, and Google. These are, of course, only a tiny handful of the words that are entering the lexicon almost daily. Some words we embrace without complaint. Others are stubbornly resisted, especially by older generations.

We are all, of course, free to like some words and despise others. We are free to refrain from using them and even free to disdain those who do. But I find it strange that so many fight language evolution as though it is a sure sign of societal decay.

I recently came across an article on MentalFloss.com that lists twelve words we use habitually that, when introduced, were considered atrocious barbarisms by the linguistic gatekeepers of the day. Please read the article for the full story and the arguments against these one-time neologisms. Here are the words:

  1. contact
  2. interview
  3. optimism/pessimism
  4. mortician
  5. purist
  6. reliable
  7. antibody
  8. electrocution
  9. proposition
  10. demote
  11. balance
  12. donate

I’m pretty sure no one’s undies get bunched when these words are spoken today, yet purists (yes, I did that) pushed back hard when people first started using them. I hope that brings some perspective.

¹Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore, of those clan-kings, heard of their glory.

²When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower

*****

Your comments are welcome. Leave them in the Reply section below.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/williamsha155103.html#TUtVTy1LuTZcmRx1.99
t a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/williamsha155103.html#TUtVTy1LuTZcmRx1.99

 

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Paula Lee Bright
    Paula Lee Bright02-06-2015

    Brilliant! I’ve been thinking this ever since I grew old enough to listen (age ?9?, 51 years ago) and really hear some of previous generations complaining about this very thing.

    I’ve been meaning and meaning to write about it, but now I don’t have to. You explained it in a clear, convincing and mellifluous (don’t hear that much anymore!) way.

    Yay for you, blogger! Oops. That word shouldn’t be used. It’s obscene.

  2. Shelley DuPont
    Shelley DuPont01-29-2014

    The rate of influx by ethnic and cultural groups into our country morphs the English language at even faster, not to mention how technology feeds into this. I suppose I’m guilty of favoring the purist side of things, even though I should know better. After all, I was a high school English teacher.

  3. Paul Schwarz
    Paul Schwarz01-29-2014

    Love these posts about language change — couldn’t click on the Mental Floss link, though. Tried two different browsers. (Looking forward to being excoriated for not using subjects in my sentences.)

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-29-2014

      Oops. I see what I did. It should be working now. Thanks, Paul.

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