Friday, January 25, 2008

eats, shoots and decimates

I've always been fascinated by etymology and the abuse/reappropriation of language. When I was growing up my dad used to beat us with with a bag of Scrabble tiles attached to a stick. OK, that's not true, but we couldn't get away with stray apostrophes - if he found one in your wardrobe or back pocket you were in trouble.

The battle I'm interested in is between being correct - true to a word's origins - versus being understood, but wrong! The success of books like Lyne Truss' Eats Shoots And Leaves tells me that I'm not alone in my curiosity.


I'm of the view that being understood is most important. Words are man-made. Which means they only stand because we agree they do. The 'we' that invented the first versions of words aren't alive anymore, so I'm much more interested in the 'we' that exist today understanding each other. Obviously it's a shame to lose touch with the origin of words. It's interesting to say the least, but surely learning where things came from is more important that keeping them as they were?

My brother (he still has nightmares about that Z tile smacking across his lip) just sent me this link examining the history and misuse of the word decimate. Fascinating stuff to know, but sod it, we are where we are and when it comes to word usage, pride in the past is of no real value in communication today. Sorry. Language belongs to all of us, so the majority rule.

As an aside, I once learned that 'gymnasium' came from the Greek word gymnos meaning 'naked' - in Ancient Greece the finest male specimines would show off what they've got, discus or no discus. When I later found out 'gymnasium' in Swedish was a school, I was a little concerned. But apparently gymnasium can also mean 'everything in one place' in germanic languages. Anyway, I digress.

My passion is communication. Yes, it annoys me when Zs appear in words that should be Ss and yes, plurals should never have apostrophes but above all communication is about 'infecting'; Getting what's in my head into yours. I guess the secret is to keep that pathway as unpolluted by error as possible.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous The author's brother said...

It's hard to disagree that the main purpose of words is to communicate meaning through a common understanding, regardless of how this understanding came about. However I also believe that the anatomy of a word is important to its meaning.

It's not through pride in the past that I will never write "your", when I mean "you're". It's because I know the difference and so I choose the one that most closely describes the thing I am trying to say. I suppose I could just pick one and use it for everything to save me the bother.

2:58 pm  
Blogger Andy said...

I wonder if the curve of the uncanny valley can be applied here*

We evolve language by first playing with it at the fringes; enjoy tweaking its meaning, taming it and making it 'ours'. Until it becomes too far removed from what it meant before that we reject it. But as it gets further from origin and becomes a new thing in itself, we accept it again... (i.e. 'web 2.0 spellings)

This is obviously a bodged reappropriation of TUV but hey.


*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

3:15 pm  

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