A Storytelling Serial
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The process of change fascinates me. Whether we seek it, avoid it, create it, fight it, deny it, or accept it, it’s inevitable.
People change. Weather changes. So do culture and customs. The Earth itself is undergoing radical change. And the English language, which has always changed, is now being reinvented at the speed of internet communication.
Change and the Websters
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Noah Webster incited change by giving the young United States spelling rules that distinguished American from British English. That’s when, for instance, the new side of the pond started writing honour as honor and turned centre into center.
Today the Merriam-Webster dictionary is committed to describing language, not causing it. They carefully research how we’re using words and then add entries when societal usage reaches a tipping point. After giving us more than 840 new words in September 2018, they went beyond an additional 640 fresh entries in April 2019.
And this flows from us telling them how we use language, not from them dictating to us how words should be intended or spelled.
All stages of change have their own challenges, but the messy middle of transition often seems hardest.
That’s where we are with two language bits that are currently caught between what they used to mean and what many English speakers and writers signify with them now.
If your world is anything like mine, you hear and read literally so often that context long ago told you how it’s used. Who needs a dictionary for something that obvious?
But if you did look it up, you’d find that this descriptor came from the Latin littera, for letter. In other words, literal originally pertained to the meanings and exactness of letters and words.
The dictionary provides witness, though, that we’ve gradually expanded literally to be a ready substitute for actually, really, truly, just the facts. And paradoxically, we’re also using the term literally figuratively and metaphorically, as a form of emphasis or to portray an effect as virtually real. (“I’m telling you, that memo from headquarters literally set my hair on fire.”)
Fair warning: we’re in transition on this one, and it’s still painful for many to continually run into the ubiquitous literally used to convey anything other than meeting the exact sense of the words. (“I’m telling you, that memo from headquarters literally repeated their threat to fire all of us.”)
So don’t be surprised if someone winces when you’re living your life literally.
Begging Which Question?
I beg your pardon, but begs the question is another term experiencing difficult transition. It started out as a term of art in the field of logic: an accusation of circular reasoning, something along the line of “I knew we’d all be fired because reading the memo literally set my hair on fire.”
In that usage, when you respond to a statement with “That begs the question,” you aren’t positioning yourself to ask a follow-up question (the most obvious being “What does burning hair smell like?”). You’re actually (if not literally) saying, “You based that conclusion on something that needs explaining just as much as your premise does.” In other words, you’re pointing out that the conclusion still needs support. It begs for a logical explanation.
But today we commonly use begs the question to mean “That raises—or begs for—another question.” And despite an increasing trend in this direction, the logic of this escapes those who were taught to avoid making any statement that could beg a question.
Conscious Choices and Consequences
In a previous post, I declared that knowledge is a choice. Here I’ll add that knowledge provides a choice.
One of the many things I love about English usage and grammar is that awareness of its history gives us freedom to either follow tradition or take new paths—and to be prepared for the consequences of whatever we choose, whether irritation from those who prefer useful precision or appreciation from those who applaud intentional innovation.
Noah Webster certainly knew his spellings yet willingly faced strong reaction to his changes. And Merriam-Webster clearly knows word history but bravely embraces continuous language change. Perhaps we can all navigate transition with greater ease when we remain conscious of what’s changing and how we want to respond.
Is there a word or phrase you’ve noticed is going through transition in the English-speaking world? In the Comments section below, we’d love to know whether you’re ready to let go of your former usage and adopt a growing trend.