by Kristin Fehlauer
Anyone who’s picked up a copy of Shakespeare can see that language evolves; that’s why we need modern “translations”. You don’t even need to go back that far: “broads” and “hooch,” while still understandable, are clearly marked as dated, and although my parents might wear dungarees, I would only ever put on jeans.
Howard be thy name
These are quite obvious examples, but some of the mechanisms at work are more subtle. Take the word “nickname”, for instance. This word began life centuries ago as “ekename”, eke meaning added or additional. In English, the vowel sound of “eke” would require the indefinite article “an”: an eke name. Over time, the “n” migrated to join the noun, giving us “a nekename,” and ultimately “a nickname”.
Although this sort of word corruption would seem to be a feature of a predominantly oral language versus the relative stability of a codified written one, similar kinds of mishearings still happen today. For example, once or twice I’ve seen “beckon call,” versus the actual phrase “beck and call.” You might scoff at the absurdity, but ultimately, can you see why people would opt for the former? When do you ever encounter the word beck uncoupled from call? Beckon, on the other hand, pairs more logically – if more repetitiously – with call:
• They expect him to be constantly at their beck and call.
• They expect him to be constantly at their beckon call.
You could argue that “beckon call” doesn’t quite work semantically, but how much sense does “beck and call” make? You can’t defend it using reason; you can only assert that it’s a long-established idiom.
Context and repeated exposure often help someone figure out correct usage, but every now and then a misunderstanding slips through the cracks. I once knew a college student who was asked to explain the word “pastime.” She began to describe it as something having to do with the past; she gave the example of baseball’s being dubbed America’s pastime and said it was because the sport is such a large part of American history. As a quick look at the dictionary will show, that’s not what pastime means. But how was she to know? She’s a native speaker of American English, bright, educated, and was making her way through life quite unencumbered despite this mistaken notion. It never occurred to her to look up a word she believed she knew. And even if she had, example sentences are not necessarily illustrative, as a few I found online will attest:
• Not a noble pastime for one who will wed our next ruler, the second said with a frown.
• Bowls, the oldest British outdoor pastime, next to archery, still in vogue.
• The pastime found favor with the Stuarts.
All of these instances, I would argue, could be understood as showing that pastime refers to a time in the past. And it also makes sense when you look at the word: past + time. It’s more of a leap to recognize that it refers to something that helps “pass the time”.
Another example occurred recently right here in the office, where I had a discussion with Richard about the word “idyll”. He used it to refer to a physical, geographical place, whereas I had understood it to mean more an episode, event, or happening. We looked it up in Cambridge Dictionary online and found this sample sentence:
• Every year thousands of people flee the big cities in search of the pastoral/rural idyll.
Not particularly helpful, in that it could mean both. If all you ever read were these sorts of ambiguous sentences, is it any wonder that you might be mistaken about the actual definition? That unconscious mistake might parlay itself into your own sentences, triggering a ripple effect of shifting meaning that spreads out into the wider group of language users. And as Scott Adams’s Dilbert once noted, “If a bunch of intellectuals start using a word wrong, then it becomes proper in common usage.”
As I try to imagine how language, and specifically English, evolved, I see its story split into roughly three phases. In the first phase, society is already literate but spelling is fluid. If there are no dictionaries, you can’t look up how to spell things; given that early English was such a mix of different tongues, spelling was understandably all over the place. Then once we started codifying it (the second phase), we produced standard reference works and standardized spellings. There were right ways and wrong ways to write – spelling and grammar alike.
But now I see us in a third phase, one marked by digital tools like spellcheck and autocorrect. We’ve basically removed that in-between step where the person writing realizes there’s something amiss and wants to double-check. Is that sense of uncertainty, of knowing enough to know when to consult another source, on its way out? These digital tools are certainly convenient, and a veritable boon to those with no instinct for English orthography, but are we losing something essential in exchange for those gains?
R U ready?
In some ways, the existence of dictionaries and reference works has made us hyperaware of how language is evolving. New editions provide updates and amendments to reflect changes in accepted and common usage, and it still makes the news when the OED adds words. But are we moving away from viewing these compendia as authorities? Will we relaxing our rules regarding what is acceptable? As our schools put less emphasis on penmanship and spelling, or even omit teaching it altogether, plus the rise of textspeak, what will happen to spelling? A goodly number of websites poke fun at people’s typos and grammatical errors, but there may soon come a time when not enough people know enough to recognize those mistakes.
At BVIW, asking these sorts of questions is our job. We need to stay abreast of trends and shifts in language. One recent example is that, by and large, the Internet is now the internet. Its move to a common noun reflects its ubiquity and how much a part of the everyday it has become.
But our role can be active as well. Frequently we need to make decisions regarding how to spell or capitalize words, sometimes even what they mean. The results can have far-reaching effects. For instance, over the past couple of years, we’ve needed to discuss digitization vs. digitalization. They often seem to be interchangeable, but we at BVIW have decided to use digitization to mean putting something in a digital (i.e. non-analog) format, and digitalization to describe the process of incorporating digital and online technologies into a business. It’s actually quite exciting: we are at the forefront of efforts to shape and direct the evolution of language.