The Words We Use

I’m a huge fan of language. Although mathematics is more precise and can express many ideas far more concisely than language, it’s words that we employ on a daily basis to give form to our thoughts and to interact with those around us.

If you’re not sure about my claim regarding mathematics, by the way, just consider this simple equation:

When n becomes very small, 1 approaches infinity. And when n is very large then 1 approaches zero. There’s nothing in any language that can encapsulate nearly-infinity and nearly-nothing in such a concise way.

But back to words. Despite what pedants may wish to the contrary, the meanings of words aren’t fixed. They shift over time. For example the word candidate derives from the same word that gives us candle, namely the Latin word candidus meaning white. This is because candidates for election to the Roman Senate wore white robes to show how “pure” they were. Hence also our word candid. Today of course candidates for political office don’t wear white robes and only the most naïve of us expect them to be pure and honest.

Our word luxurious used to mean, during the period of middle-English, lascivious. The list of words that have profoundly changed in meaning is quite long. For a very old but still excellent primer on the evolution of English words you can consult A.J. Sheard’s seminal book The Words We Use which recently has been re-issued in paperback after decades in which it was only to be found in libraries such as Oxford’s Bodleian. (And no, I won’t make any money if you happen to buy a copy on Amazon or elsewhere.)

Despite the fact words change, for the most part they remain stable long enough for most people to agree more or less on what they are supposed to mean. If this weren’t the case, we’d be unable to communicate at all. So when I write the word red you can conjure up approximately what I mean, even if it’s not precisely the shade of red I’m thinking about. Ludwig Wittgenstein foolishly argued that we can never truly know if the red inside my head is the same red that’s inside yours, but anyone with the vaguest grasp of evolution can see that Wittgenstein’s argument was spurious. Natural selection doesn’t result in dozens of different types of human brain, each with an entirely different mechanism for internal representations. Your red is pretty much my red because evolution is parsimonious. Were it not, we’d all be wandering around with different numbers of hands, different types of arms, and so forth.

Set against the temporary stability of words is the desire of sub-groups to create their own special sub-set of language. Teens are the most prolific players of this game but adults do it to a lesser degree as well. Hence we see the word cool morph from being a description of relative temperature to indicating some desirable transiently fashionable property such as nonchalance (“she was playing it cool”) or style (“that’s a cool shirt!”). These modifications sometimes remain long enough to take their place in everyday usage but more often become embarrassing relics. Who today would employ groovy with anything other than irony? The formerly New England affectation of saying things like “wicked good” sounds today merely infantile while the expression “I never always do that” now sounds utterly retarded.

Language comprises more than lexicon, of course. Grammar is essential otherwise we should have no idea of who is doing what to whom. Different languages have different types of grammar but all achieve the same results. In English, because we dropped word-endings a long time ago in order to enable speakers of Old Norse to talk with speakers of Old English, we use word order. “Mary pushed Mike” is the opposite of “Mike pushed Mary” even though the three words in each sentence are identical.

Russian, on the other hand, is far more reliant on word endings and far less reliant on word order. “Мэри толкнул Майк” is the same as “Мэри Майк толкнул.” Languages also differ in terms of how they handle concepts like time. Many languages deriving from Indo-European, such as German and French and Italian, have true future tenses. English does not, so we end up with constructions such as “I will go to the office tomorrow.” Japanese, famously, has very restricted tenses and so a time element is almost always required as there is no formal present tense at all.

For most of our evolutionary history it’s probable that languages were fairly stable, changing only gradually from generation to generation. But in the last one hundred and fifty years or so we’ve seen a most amazing phenomenon with the emergence of US English.

The United States is factually a country of immigrants, regardless of the infantile ramblings of the senile halfwit currently defiling 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with his execrable presence. For the first time in the history of our species a major chunk of real estate contains people from a huge number of different language groups. Even ancient Alexandria didn’t have to cope with so much linguistic diversity. All these people in the USA have to communicate with each other in order to go about the quotidian business of living. As English was the dominant language, this made things tricky.

British English has twelve tenses plus a subjunctive. The average Brit utilizes some 3,700 words on a daily basis and an educated Brit will use nearly three times that number. That’s a pretty big barrier to surmount when you just want to buy a bag of tomatoes and ask the way to the nearest bus-stop. So what happened, without anyone planning it, was that US English began to shed every aspect of English that wasn’t absolutely essential. This reduced the amount of language newcomers had to acquire before they could begin to communicate, which meant it was more functional for everyday life.

There’s an analogy with computer processor chips. Back in the 1980s a few hardware engineers realized that most of the logic gates in the computer chips of the time weren’t being used by the software that was being written. They found that about 80% of the work a chip was doing was using only about 30% of the logic gates. If they built chips that optimized the 30% then these chips would compute most task smuch faster, albeit at the cost of slower computations that required the missing 70%. This new type of chip, pioneered by IBM back in 1980, was termed Reduced Instruction Set Chip, or RISC for short. And it worked brilliantly, resulting in many new hardware companies being founded to churn out RISC-based computers.

US English is therefore the RISC equivalent of British English. It enables users to perform most tasks faster and more easily than the parent language because it’s a stripped-down version. As such it is brilliantly adapted for its primary purpose. You can arrive in the USA from anywhere on Earth, speaking any of the many complex languages that people speak, and within about three months you can communicate adequately with those around you. Just try doing that with British English, or Hungarian, or Japanese, or Russian, or any other mature and relatively stable language.

Whereas British English has 12 tenses plus a subjunctive, US English has three (simple present, simple past, simple future) and no subjunctive. Whereas the average Brit utilizes nearly 4,000 words per day and an educated Brit nearly three times that number, the average US citizen, educated or not, employs a mere 500 words in their core vocabulary. This is why US English can be acquired so quickly: there’s far less to learn.

The only drawback, as with RISC chips, is that complex expression is rendered far more difficult. The English sentence “One would have presumed he would have evinced a greater comprehension of the facts” is rendered in US English as “He just didn’t get it, huh?” This is because in addition to having only three tenses US English relies predominantly on only two verbs, to do and to get. Hence sentences like “I don’t do drugs but I got laid last night.”

As a result of such a limited lexicon, US English speakers take recourse to phrasal verbs in order to compensate for a wider variety of actual verbs. This can easily lead to confusion as the limited number of phrasal verbs is pressed into service to express a wide range of very different concepts. Hence the phrasal verb “make out” can mean many different things, as the following examples demonstrate:

“She made out like she was a princess” meaning: she adopted a supercilious attitude of entitlement

“He made out with her last night” meaning: he engaged in intimate acts with her last night, possibly but not necessarily including sexual intercourse

“She made out six of Jupiter’s moons” meaning: she discerned six of Jupiter’s moons

“He made out he was at Joe’s yesterday” meaning: he pretended he was at Joe’s yesterday

Usually the meaning of a phrasal verb can be determined by its context, but sometimes context provides no help at all. For example, in my 27 years in the United States I have found that approximately half the population believe the phrase “to luck out” means to be fortunate, while the other half of the population believes the same phrase means to be unfortunate. And here’s the interesting thing: whenever a person learns that the phrase has potentially the opposite meaning to the meaning they ascribe to it they invariably say, “well, I’ve never heard anyone use it that way.”

Of course they have, many times. They just didn’t know it because they assumed the speaker was using the phrase in the same way they do. How could they possibly know otherwise?

So we have to be a bit careful with language.

Unfortunately, many people intentionally misuse language in order to promote themselves and their aims. We used to call this propaganda but now we’re so inured to it we don’t even have a name for it anymore.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. How about inappropriate? This is a great word to use when you want to shut someone down rather than debate their position on its merits and demerits. It’s basically saying “shut the f*ck up because I can’t think of a good response” and is censorship pure and simple. But it doesn’t sound like censorship so people often don’t even realize what they’re doing when they employ the word.

How about the word true? In the USA in particular there’s been such an attachment to the idea that everything can be true that we have nonsense concepts like “it’s my truth.” Yes folks, regardless of the solid fact that the Earth is an oblate sphere it is OK to believe the Earth is actually flat because, well, that’s your truth. And so the word truth has come to be meaningless because by this standard anything and everything is true and so is its exact opposite.

Today however we’re well past the misuse of individual words. We’re deep into the misuse of the entire language. Everywhere in the world, right-wing populists are twisting language so that words no longer have reliable meanings. This permits several things. Firstly, it confuses people, and confused people are easy to manipulate and find it difficult to self-organize. Secondly, it permits fabulous amounts of hypocrisy. Thirdly, it enables the speaker to garb evil in the clothes of moderation.

In recent years we’ve seen a tsunami of populist demagogues elected to power by simple-minded people who are incapable of understanding the complexities of the real world and thus yearn to be spoon-fed simplistic answers that their limited brains can vaguely grasp. When Trump squeals “fake news” his tens of millions of drooling howling supporters know they don’t need to think about whatever it is because their Great Orange Overlord has told them it’s fake and so thinking is not required. When Boris the Clown squeaks “taking back control” the millions of people who voted for Brexit imagine Spitfires flying over the White Cliffs of Dover and don’t have to worry their feeble intellects about the fact the phrase is utterly empty.

Today, thanks to the systemic inadequacies of representative democracy coupled to an always-on world of infotainment, the specious and vapid rules over all. Language has been among the first casualties.

There is a profound difference between the gradual shift in meaning of individual words and the wholesale undermining of an entire language. Trump may be far too stupid to have any grasp of the harm he’s doing and the politicians of the Republican Party may be too supine and intellectually inadequate to understand the crimes they are enabling, but that doesn’t make anything less damaging to society and ultimately to our entire planet. We can’t hold people accountable for the way they use language because, let’s face it, we can’t hold powerful people accountable for anything at all even when their abuses are as blatant as those of Trump and his grotesque circle of enablers. But we can use language more thoughtfully among ourselves, in order that we can continue to communicate meaningfully and perhaps one day organize ourselves in a way that can be effective.



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Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.