This book is called L for two simple and special reasons.
It is my 50th book, and L is the Roman numeral for 50.
It is about Language and Literature.
This collection goes back quite a few years and includes a number of my published articles about a topic very close to my heart, language. There are also some about writing, books, and such similar topics, but language is at the base of them all.
Most of the articles were originally published in various magazines and web sites. Since some of the places are professional and/or academic, which the ordinary reader might have difficulty finding, I have brought them together here.
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Words change their meanings over time. Often this is due to the way the word is used and alterations in its usage. Sometimes these changes are deliberate – as when someone adopts a common word and gives it a new meaning – other times they just happen: As the way people talk or the environment changes the words change also. Sometimes, the change is more sinister, as when a common word is given a new meaning and used in place of a word that has bad connotations, as in propaganda, to hide what is really happening.
Recent changes in sensitivity have seen many of the old Anglo-Saxon based swear words brought back into common speech. It seems that this started as a protest by younger people, particular pop music groups, who wanted to shock their elders. The trouble, from their point of view, is that it has become so common that it is mostly accepted, except by old fogies, so it no longer shocks. The common usage of these words has also changed much of their meanings. The words have just become words with little meaning any more. For instance, swear words that originally referred to sex and sexuality are now simply expletives with no meaning other than to try to shock the sensibility of the hearer. Their original meaning has been all but lost.
The way that these swear words have moved in and out of common usage is interesting. A hundred years ago a person could be arrested and jailed for using them, particularly in print. Fifty years ago they were considered indecent and offensive. Men might use them when talking to other men, but were careful not to use them when a woman was nearby, in case she was offended. They were still not permitted in print. Then they came into use intended deliberately to shock and offend. Now they have become common again and even women use them openly. Now it is getting to be uncommon to find a book that doesn’t use the ‘four-letter-words’ somewhere. They have moved from illegal to common in a very short a time. Will they eventually move again and become again uncommon or even condemned? Who knows: The way the English language changes, anything is possible. It seems that, already, many of them are being used so commonly that they do not impact on the hearer, and are just ignored. The fact that some people still find them offensive doesn’t seem to matter any more.
Sometimes common or pre-existing words are used for new technology, which can sometimes confuse someone who knows the origin of the words. ‘Computer’ originally meant a person who ‘computes’, that is ‘works something out’ or ‘calculates’, often mathematically. Now it has been depersonalised to mean an object rather than a person. There is a lot of difference between a person who works something out and a machine that does the same.
The twentieth century has seen many new or modified words come into use. One of the areas where this is most common is in talking about warfare. No longer do we use plain Anglo-Saxon words when talking about war and its consequences. ‘War’ itself has become an ‘engagement’. The enemy are no longer just ‘the enemy’. Now they have become ‘barbarians’, ‘aggressors’ and so on. When an unarmed town is attacked it no longer is ‘destroyed in an attack’. Now it is ‘cancelled by a strategic operation’. The residents aren’t killed, they are ‘permanently displaced from the situation’ and they don’t become ‘homeless refugees’, but ‘displaced persons’ or ‘strategic problems’. The purpose of all these new creations is to remove the idea of war being aggressive and offensive and make it more palatable to the general public who don’t like to read of ‘massacres’ or ‘exterminations’. Unless it is the enemy who is reported as doing them, when it is used to stir up feeling against them. We don’t massacre civilians, we remove non-combatants from an offensive position: Only the enemy exterminates and massacres our ‘military advisors’! And only foreign countries have ‘terrorists’: We have ‘freedom fighters’.
Will language ever come to be like NewSpeak in Orwell’s 1984, where ‘Peace is War’, where words with once opposite meanings have been revised and redefined to mean the same thing? Sometimes, the way politicians and advertisers use words, we seem to be heading in that direction.
Sometimes it is difficult for a person learning English, such as child or non-English speaker, to adjust to the changes of meaning. Sometimes they will learn the meaning of a word, only to find that when they use it in ordinary conversation it means something different. Often the difference is subtle, but it might also be offensive or important. Most of us have, at some times, had to correct the pronunciation of a child whose mistake has turned a common word into something maybe offensive or misleading, without him being aware of what s/he has done. We have also experienced the embarrassment of a non-English speaker who is trying to tell us something important or interesting but distorts the message by choosing the wrong word, or the wrong meaning of the word.
It is important that the learner of English be aware of the changes in words. It is not enough that s/he knows the current meaning of a particular word. S/he must also know if the meaning has changed and when, where the word originated, how it evolved over time and changed its meaning, and any subtleties in its meaning. Without this knowledge, difficulties could arise. Imagine the confusion of a person reading a book about 18th century office workers, but being unaware of the change in the meaning of ‘computer’ mentioned above. S/he would wonder if the author has made a historical mistake by introducing computers, or, perhaps, PCs were invented a few hundred years earlier than is usually claimed.
Three examples will show how this has happened: Speed, urchin and revolve, are words as used by Shakespeare at various places in his works that now mean something very different from what the Bard intended because they have changed their meanings in the interim.
Speed once meant to achieve one’s aims, to succeed in an enterprise. It had nothing to do with moving fast. So when a character says “Good speed!” s/he is wishing someone good luck and success in whatever they were going to do: “I hope you succeed in your aim and do it very well!”.
Urchin is an old name for the hedgehog. It means ‘having spines’ and is why the spiny sea urchin is so named. So when Shakespeare refers to “the urchin in the storm” he means the hedgehog hiding in the underbrush, not lost or destitute children.
Revolve once meant to think or consider. For instance, a character in a play by Shakespeare reads a letter and is told to ‘revolve’. He is not being told to turn around in a circle, but to think about and consider the matters discussed in it.
Unfortunately, not many people (particularly producers of Shakespeare’s plays!) know about these changes, and so we have an actor turning in a circle when he should be thinking and other oddities. They change some of the points that Shakespeare was trying to make in his plays, often to their detriment.
Of course, if the student of English is to be taught all this, the teacher must also know and understand how and why and when words have changed their meanings over time. If in doubt, or curious, The Oxford English Dictionary is your best source, if somewhat large for everyday use. But if you look it up in the OED you can be sure that you know all about the word: Perhaps more than you want to know! Still, it’s always interesting to learn more about our common language, but perhaps it’s best not to become too pedantic about it.