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Wayne Adult Community Center

Feature article from the March, 2001 Newsletter

OUR CHANGING LANGUAGE

When the queen of England first saw the Crystal Palace, which was built for the country's Great Exhibition of 1851. she pronounced it "awful and artificial".  That was a high compliment, because at the time "awful" meant awe-inspiring, and "artificial" meant that the building  was designed with great artistry.

Are you a language purist, who shudders in disgust when you hear someone say "The media is ...", or “I’m suspect about that”?  If so, you are doomed to permanent upset:  In any living language, (which is to say: any language that is used in daily conversation), new words are always being added, some existing words are changing meaning, and some old words are falling out of use.  To take an example from this very paragraph, the word "doom" once meant someone's destiny, without regard to whether it was good or bad, but over the years the word lost its neutral connotation and now always indicates a tragic end.

When you grow up with one meaning for a word, it can be annoying to hear the word used to mean something else, especially if the new usage is based on ignorance (such as when the word "fortuitous" is used to mean "lucky" by erroneous association with the word "fortunate").  However, ignorance is not the only source of change in a language:  Slang, politics, advertising, and (as  mentioned above) importation from other languages are all major contributors.

Some other examples of changes in the American language are:

Apron - There was once a  protective item of clothing called “a napron”, but eventually the leading "n" moved to the indefinite article, and we now say "an apron".
Dumb still means mute, but now it is often used to mean stupid.
Lousy originally meant infested with lice but now it is usually taken to mean of poor quality.
Presently still properly means soon, but it is now used primarily to mean at the present time.
Throwback once meant very small in size (from fishing terminology), but it is now most often used to mean something that has reverted  to a more primitive form.

So, although phrases such as "very unique" or "so fun", may affect you like the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard, the process of change in every living language is inexorable.  Today’s ignorant misuse may become tomorrow’s accepted meaning .  We all had best accept it.

W. A. Shapiro


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