Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Death and Birth of English



photo from Grammarly
A friend of mine recently posted the photo from Grammarly featuring the quote from Conan O’Brien. The most surprising thing about it is that it is almost a year old and still making the rounds. I have previously mentioned various words of the year as named by various groups. Each so-named word-of-the-year generates the usual pitiful wails from the language purists who remain convinced that Shakespeare, or Dickens, or (insert favorite English author) had the language in its perfect form and we are fools for changing it.

To those purists who have nothing better to do than grouse about the perversion of our language based on societal change I say, “Get over it! English ain't Latin." (Like it or not even spell check knows ain’t is a word.)

Some argue the words selected are too silly or represent a fad. Often they do. Not!* The truthiness** of the Occupy*** movement was challenged by some, but not if they had a subprime**** mortgage. The rise of words expressing the dynamic of society generate the energy that keeps English alive. Rather than killing the language, these words represent the continual birth found in any living language.

Truthfully, those decrying the various words of the year are not attacking the word so much as they disagree with the circumstances that promoted the word to prominence. That is not a question for the linguists who study trends in language but for the society that allowed “selfie” to become a thing. Why are people so preoccupied with taking photos of themselves? I would argue that in a world where everything is social, it’s a cry for attention, “Hey, look at me,” and when the world does not, the selfie offers the illusion of attention, “I’m looking at me.”

Maybe selfie is not so silly.

People, look beyond yourself.

No. Really. Pay attention to the background! No one wants to see your dirty underwear or any of the other embarrassing things captured in that moment of self-affirmation.

In November the various organizations that compile the lists of influential words will again offer their collections. At this point in the year I am at a loss to predict what words will be selected, but I know there will again be the usual uproar predicting the death of our diseased dialects. If it is the typical year, my voice will rise with the others - with the understanding that those cries do not draw us to the funeral parlor, but to the nursery, where we view the continuing birth of English.

*1992, **2005, ***2011, ****2007 words of the year. We may not use them as much, but we still know what they mean.

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