Manic About Semantics

I'm a native English speaker. I believe I'm quite proficient in using the language properly in order to get the ideas from my head into your head in the most efficient and clear way possible. That is the purpose after all right? We agree on a set of words and rules to make the transfer of thoughts as easy as possible. So, why all the fighting over word and grammar use?

I wish I had an answer for you, but unfortunately, it's not exactly a simple question. I can tell you that I've fought on both sides. In my younger days, I was the stereotypical "Grammar Nazi". I had no qualms about correcting and shaming improper word use, spelling, punctuation, or abbreviation. Yes, I was that asshole that would say, "Ahem... the proper phrase is actually 'I couldn't care less.' Otherwise, it means that you do care, even if it's just a little bit." Forgive me.

 Once again, Shakespeare said it best.

Once again, Shakespeare said it best.

I often found myself getting offended when people would pronounce words incorrectly. Dialects, accents, and affectations were problems to be corrected, and certainly couldn't be tolerated in my own speech. So I would often practice my pronunciation in an effort to be as neutral as possible. If someone said I had an accent, I would surely be considered less intelligent. In the end, that was the crux of my constant linguistic scrutiny... I believed I was smarter than everyone and I could prove it with semantics.

I'd wield my knowledge as a weapon, a Grammar Hammer if you will...

I'm so sorry. That's been bouncing around in my head for a while and I needed to write it out. It's exactly as excruciating as I imagined it would be. 

Anyway... as I said, I used my growing knowledge of the language and its use to make myself feel superior. There's a perverse satisfaction in telling someone they're speaking incorrectly, and I reveled in it. As you might imagine, this didn't earn me many friends. I wasn't much for socializing and when you're the guy who corrects people, you aren't going to be invited to many parties. Truth be told, I was an insufferable little bastard, and it went on for much longer than I like to admit. 

So what changed? Well... a lot. A poor choice of major led to a failed college career, which led to a series of humble jobs with diverse groups of coworkers. A serious romantic relationship led to the prospect of a family, which caused a shift in priorities. And, of course, age has a way of granting perspective. Everyone I met had a unique way of speaking and instead of wanting them all to be the same, I found it much more interesting to ponder the concept of language itself. 

Over time I realized that I had been thinking of language in a much too fixed way. Language isn't static, it's fluid. Definitions shift and evolve over years of use. New words appear and flourish while unpopular words are pushed further and further out of the lexicon. This is absolutely natural for a living language because, while word choice may seem totally personal, it's actually much more cultural. 

 Lamentably, my gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety.

Lamentably, my gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety.

The only reason words mean anything at all is because we agree they do. So if the social consciousness shifts to think of a word as meaning something different than it previously did, as long as we all understand, the word now means whatever we think it does. For example: "Literally." This is a word that a lot of people are reluctant to let go. but when it's used under the new definition, even if we don't like it, we understand it. 

What's much more important than arguing about changing definitions is awareness of meaning and intent. Words are powerful because they convey ideas. Having a broad knowledge of language makes your ideas clearer to your audience and allows a deeper understanding of the speaker. It bridges the gaps between our minds. I can't send the contents of my brain directly to you, so the only choice I have is to use my words and hope your words sync up, so it pays to have a wide spectrum.

Also, If you allow for a wider range of meaning and usage, it only makes for more interesting conversation. There's so much potential for customization in our words that trying to stifle that is not only impossible but foolish. My love for language came from my love of reading, now I think of what a slog it would be to read everything under such strict rules. Think of your favorite book and imagine it was written like a terms of service agreement. That's what we end up with if we keep language stiff. No personality, no voice, no life.

Language is beautiful. It's varied, versatile, emotional, informative, evocative, affective, effective, offensive, humongous, splendorous, odorous, personal, universal, powerful, colorful, adaptable, intense, comforting, challenging, stylish, contemporary, and archaic. It's the fabric of civilization and the conduit of culture. To lose language would be to lose humanity, so the next time you hear someone say a phrase that makes your skin crawl, consider if it's the content of the message that bugs your or just the delivery. And if it is just semantics, you can relax... Or chill out, take it easy, regain composure, calm down, take a breather, repose, simmer down, unwind, hang loose...