Myths of Language Change, Part 2: That’s Not What It Really Means

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

This resistance usually takes one of several classic forms. In this series of articles, we well examine each of these classic errors of resistance. Here are two more:

That’s Not What It Really Means
During the Gulf War of 1991 several language commentators raised a hue and cry over the use of the verb to decimate. Journalists were broadcasting statements like, “The coalition air forces decimated the Iraqi Republican Guards, destroying some eighty percent of their combat power.” The commentators objected to the use of decimate, claiming that the original sense of the word meant to kill one in every ten. The word comes from the Latin verb decimāre, meaning to take one tenth. It was originally a form of Roman military punishment, used when soldiers committed mutiny or some other group crime.

The aggrieved language mavens concluded that if deci- means ten in Latin, the word decimate could mean nothing other than to destroy one tenth of something. What the mavens forgot was that the sense of a word is determined by how it is used, not by how the word originated. If enough people use decimate figuratively, meaning to kill in large numbers, then that is what the word comes to mean.

The meanings of words change over time. Words acquire new senses and lose old ones; they acquire connotations; they specialize and generalize and they are used metaphorically and figuratively. This is a natural and continuous process. Almost no word is used in exactly and in only the way it was when it first entered the language. This error is so common that linguists have given it a name, the etymological fallacy, or the belief that the original sense must be the correct sense.

In the case of decimate, the word has been used figuratively to mean to destroy a large proportion of something since the beginning of the 19th century. The reporters in the Persian Gulf were not using the verb in any new or strange sense.

It Means This, Not That

Pete: How did you score the tickets?
Clark: Lex hooked me up.
—Smallville, “Cool,” 2001

A similar error is to believe that a word has one and only one meaning. Some people insist that words must have precise and singular senses, that to brook multiple definitions and connotations is a recipe for confusion and disaster.

This is simply incorrect. Most words have more than one meaning or sense. Sometimes, the different senses connote minor nuances. Sometimes they are radically different, even contradictory.

I was recently involved in an online discussion on the meaning of the slang verb phrase to hook up. Some contended that the verb meant to have sexual intercourse as in, “After three months of dating, Bill and Sarah finally hooked up.” Others said that it could mean anything from a bit of necking to going all the way, so long as it was a casual encounter, “Bill and Sarah hooked up after the party.” Others disagreed and claimed that it meant to date seriously, to go steady, “Bill and Sarah have been hooked up all semester.” Others said it was even more serious; to be hooked up is to be married, as in, “Bill and Sarah have been hooked up these past 25 years.” Still others chimed in with a platonic sense, meaning simply to meet someone, “Sarah hopes to hook up with Bill while she is in New York and discuss the marketing plan.” And not mentioned in the discussion, but still out there, is the transitive sense meaning to broker a sale or deal, especially for a hard-to-find item, “Bill hooked Sarah up with the Rolling Stones tickets.”

All six are correct. Hook up can mean all these things. The penultimate sense, to meet someone, is the oldest. It dates to the turn of the 20th century America. Also, about that time, the verb came to mean to get married. In the 1980s, the verb started appearing in college campus slang in the various sexual permutations.

So does this cause confusion? Not really. The sense is usually apparent from the context. We can safely assume that Bill and Sarah didn’t get married after the fraternity party and that they did not discuss the marketing plan during pillow talk (at least for their sake we hope not). And as to whether it means sexual intercourse or something less, well there is often value in ambiguity. It allows Sarah to make her encounter with Bill seem to be more than it was when she brags about it to her sorority sisters, and it allows Bill to let the guys in the locker room know that he and Sarah had a good time without resorting to detailed description of the sexual acts. If we need precision, there are plenty of other words that will provide it.

Not only can senses be different; they can be downright contradictory. Hook up can refer to a variety of social encounters and relationships, but they differ only in degree of familiarity and length of the relationship. Other words can hold contradictory senses. These are called Janus words and the most cited example is cleave. Cleave can mean to join together or to split apart. Again, context prevents confusion.

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