When Language Changes

Grant Barrett & Martha Barnette Photo Credit: A Way With Words website

Grant Barrett & Martha Barnette Photo Credit: A Way With Words website

The podcast has become my primary form of cultural enlightenment, and lately I’ve been listening to A Way With Words where Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette answer questions about words and phrases in the English language—or, according to the official description, “A Way with Words is a call-in public radio show about language. It’s heard across the country and around the world by broadcast and podcast.” The subject is apparently inexhaustible, and the hosts are enthusiastic researchers and conversationalists. Besides making me laugh a lot, they’ve taught me a thing or two about this language I’m always going on about, and forced me to look at the reasons behind some of my raving reactions. It turns out I am not alone in my rage over some new turns of the English screw—for instance, using nouns as verbs, such as turning the honorable journal into a self-help regimen (to journal), or overuse of trendy phrases (going forward tagged onto the end of anything with a future, no matter how distant or vague).

Actually, those aren’t the best examples, since I’ll probably always loathe and refuse to use them. The place where I need to loosen up is in adapting to change, understanding that language is a dynamic phenomenon that evolves along with the speaking species. Failure to adapt might, in fact, be seen as failure to evolve. It turns out that much of what we take for granted as gospel already differs from its original usage, only we don’t always know it since the changes occurred before we paid attention, or even eons before we were born. Linguistic change has probably been a part of culture since the first cave dweller uttered his first hello to his cave mate, and they both burst into astonished laughter—or so I imagine the scenario.

As I’ve learned from Grant and Martha, it’s the transitional stage, shortly after a word begins its long, slow journey from one meaning or nuance to another, that’s so hard for some people. It’s during this period that I and others with my sensitivities cringe at the new. The first time I heard the word impact used as a verb it was by a favorite disk jockey on the radio (“We’ll have to see how this development impacts the community”). I was alarmed; I assumed he’d used it incorrectly, and I’d have to re-evaluate my respect for the guy. But soon I was hearing how things impacted other things all the time, and with every utterance I cringed. I know I’m showing my age here; to impact went viral a long time ago, way before the Internet even, and I no longer blink much less cringe at it anymore. I myself have never, however, used impact as a verb. Or journaling. Nor do I say we’re going forward. I absolutely refuse to jump on these linguistic tropes. Oops! I just did it with trope! I remember when that term went viral: I was at a weekend conference with someone who used it repeatedly, until I bluntly asked her what was up. She apologized and said it was indeed a virus she’d caught. How about we ruminate on that for a while, on the word virus, its literal meaning and its YouTube meaning. Look it up. I especially like Definition #3: any corrupting or infecting influence.

As you can no doubt tell by my tone and my avowed “refusal to jump on linguistic tropes,” I have yet to integrate my new awareness of language as a changing phenomenon with my gut reactions. What can I say? I’m working on it. Evolving. I think I’ll go journal write in my journal about it. Maybe I’ll change going forward someday. On second thought, maybe I won’t.


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