Rather than plunge immediately into the icy water of an abstract discussion, I first want to vividly illustrate why I feel it is so necessary that in any symbolic communication, whether involving a word or a phrase or even a number (hey, or even a hand gesture!), the symbol should conjure up the exact same meaning in the minds of speaker and listener. Even non-prescriptivists acknowledge that their merry acceptance (nay, encouragement!) of the natural, willy-nilly evolution of language means there will be frequent instances where speaker and listener have very different conceptions. I want to give examples where these different conceptions do palpable harm.
A few posts ago, I discussed the “niggardly” incident (for those who missed it, it was in #24, and basically involved a white public official using “niggardly”, meaning “stingy”, and his largely African-American listeners being outraged at his “use of a vile racial epithet”, and it culminated in his firing by the mayor of Washington, D.C.). That certainly is a fairly well-known example, and perhaps some would believe that it’s a rare instance of genuine damage.
So today, let me tell you a personal story that illustrates that in the ordinary course of daily life, language misunderstandings can result in small tragedies, tragedies that often aren’t ever understood to have been caused by language misunderstandings.
When I was about seventeen, one Sunday afternoon in the spring my family went on one of our frequent visits to my adored maternal grandmother. Though she might have been elderly, she was incredibly spry and vivacious, intelligent and well-educated, and above all MERRY. She (and everyone on my mother’s side of the family) was a humorous self-dramatizer, always laughing, frequently at her own expense. So as my father was still parking the car, I jumped out and approached my grandmother, who was standing in front of her house conversing with a neighbor, a man of about thirty. As I got to about 7 or 10 feet from them (within earshot of their conversation), I heard my grandmother say to the neighbor, in laughing, self-deprecating reference to herself, something about “hoary old age”. Though everyone on this site probably knows this, let me just say that “hoary” is a reference to “hoarfrost”, and the word “hoary” means “gray with age”. Everything that happened next occurred almost simultaneously. My grandmother turned to greet me, and I, looking at both her and the neighbor saw a “look” on his face that I knew was very abnormal, and my neighbor nodded a greeting to me, and in a strangled voice, said to my grandmother he’d leave her to her guests, and then shot away to his house.
Though I was only seventeen, I’d been a constant reader since about three and so the phrase “hoary old age” was familiar to me. But I instantly understood that my grandmother’s neighbor had interpreted it as “whory old age”. Well, later in the day, when I had a chance to be alone with my grandmother I told her what I thought had happened. Her initial reaction was, Oh, c’mon, don’t be ridiculous (my grandmother never condescended to people and usually assumed they were smart enough, and knowledgeable enough to understand her). But I persisted, and after a minute she was saying, “Oh my, do you really think it’s possible?” And, since I was as relentless then as I am now, after another minute of persuasion she said, “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed!!!!”
We flash now to the next evening. I’m back home, the phone rings, my mother answers, and immediately yells for me, “It’s Grandma, she wants to speak to you!” No sooner do I say hello, than I hear, “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!!!” And my grandmother proceeds to tell me that she’d spoken to, and explained everything to, the neighbor, who’d instantly burst into relieved and confessional laughter, saying that, yes, “whory old age” was EXACTLY what he’d thought my grandmother had said, and then added, “I’d already begun thinking of ways to avoid encountering you—I thought you were going batty!”
Consider those words, “I’d already begun thinking of ways to avoid encountering you”!! If not for my fortuitous eavesdropping, a lovely friendship would have ended, without either of them grasping that the needless breach had been caused by a verbal misunderstanding!
P.S. Languagehat and Syntinen Laulu, I haven’t forgotten you! I’ve got some pressing obligations, but as soon as time permits I’ll give your comments the thoughtful responses they deserve. As for the person insisting I’m a “troll”, I’d suggest you carefully read the thread from the beginning and see what actually happened: I asked a silly, but sincere, question, made a casual observation that I believed would meet with unanimous approval (remember, I’m a dabbler, not someone steeped in the language wars), was met with an onslaught, and have been defending myself and my position ever since against incredible hostility, the latest example of which is your post. How is that a “troll”?
Oh, I forgot: Have you noticed that this debate about prescriptivism I’m trying to engage in is probably the most intellectually stimulating thing currently going on at this site! Troll????????