Living Language

Can anyone doubt today that language is a living entity, one that changes and morphs with the times? How quickly new words are incorporated into national languages, as well as the world vocabulary: internet, DVD, CD, bits, bytes, the Cloud, PCs, Macs, iPods, iPads, android, etc.

I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue, a thus-far fascinating look at how the English language came to be. In the fourth chapter, Bryson writes about how some of the words in the English language got there by mistake.

Take, for example, the word “dord,” which appeared in the 1934 Merriam-Webster International Dictionary, as another word for destiny. Turns out, this was simply based on the misreading of a typesetter’s note, which read “D or d,” meaning the word could be capitalized or not. When the error was discovered, the M-W folks removed the word, but not before it had found its way into other dictionaries.

Bryson writes that according to the First Supplement of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries that owe their existence to typographical errors, misrenderings, or mishearings. The word “buttonhole” was once “buttonhold.” “Asparagus” was for 200 years known as “sparrow-grass” and “shamefaced” was originally “shamefast” (fast here having the sense of lodged firmly, as in “stuck fast.”)

The process can still be seen today, for example in the tendency among people to turn “catercorner” into “catty-corner” and “chaise longue” into “chaise lounge.”

One of my favorite examples is the word “pea.” Originally, the word was “pease,” as in the nursery rhyme “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold…” but this was mistakenly thought to signify a plural and the word “pea” was back-formed to denote singularity.

And the words “grovel” and “sidle” similarly came into English because the original adverbs “groveling” and “sidling” were assumed to contain the -ing suffix, as in walking and seeing. In fact, it was the -ling suffix, but that didn’t stop people from adding a pair of useful words to the language. Other back-formations are “laze” (from “lazy”), “greed” (from “greedy”), “beg” (from “beggar”), and “difficult” (from “difficulty”).

What does this mean to writers? There is no reason to despair about our language. A compilation of several other languages, it will continue to grow and be enriched, as it always has been, by the addition of new vocabulary.  Perhaps the skill of oratory is one the wane for the moment, but don’t despair. We’ll, like, have, like, lots more words when, like, the people want to, like, express themselves again!

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