Welcome to Mental Space Monday!
Where we journey inside the rabbit hole of collective consciousness and submit to the whims of curiosity.
A friend of mine recently mentioned that it annoys him when the meaning of a word morphs within society and people start using it 'wrong'.
I do believe that language is important. I am a total word junkie. I google the etymology of everything and admittedly have been completely turned off by a date who texted the wrong form of your/you're with no *corrective follow-up. I won't even apologize. I just couldn't see it going anywhere. Language is important. Terrance McKenna calls it a 'psychedelic technology that wirelessly encodes information'; Jason Silva calls it "a way for evolution to understand itself" that "allows you to put pictures in someone else's head". He agrees that language is hyper important and "impregnates the world with meaning and significance". There is so much more to inspect about the impact of language on our awareness and comprehension of the world. The podcast Radiolab covered this importance in their episode called "Words" (Fascinating - let's revisit in more depth later.)
In light of all of this, my immediate response to my friend's condemnation of word change was to nod and agree that it is such a shame that people these days can't learn proper English.
Hold up, though. I was recently describing the beauty of the TV show MacGyver to a 15 year old (who had of course never heard of it). We were describing to her the myriad of unexpected uses for a paperclip and a tube sock when I realized that I wasn't giving this bastardization of language thing a fair shake. The part that makes MacGyver so cool is that he uses the tools he has at his disposal to accomplish the task at hand. When he is in a situation he isn't prepared for, he throws intended function out the window and just goes with what works. Maybe that's what we are doing with our language. It stands to reason that since none of us are ever truly prepared for life, we are taking a cue from MacGyver using the tools that we have to communicate with those around us: our words, and bending them to our needs. That's how this whole language thing started anyway, yes? I have stick. You want stick. You point at stick and make a noise that we have mutually agreed refers to the pointy piece of wood that I am holding in my hand and we both know what we are talking about. It does get a little more hairy when dealing with intangibles: thoughts, emotions, concepts. These are a little harder to pin down and say, "This right here, this is exactly what I am talking about" thoughts don't tend to sit still as well as sticks. The beautiful byproduct of this fact however is that language is living. It changes, it evolves. It is more complex and dynamic than a stick and while is is a great tool, it can be an even better mirror. This changing nature of language means that it can serve as a quite accurate reflection of those who use it. It acts as its own Ouroboros loop, it shapes us as much as we shape it.
What a thought. Of course I had to consult the Google about this. Turns out there is a term for the shift that happens in languages over time; it is called semantic change.
The word unique is the most frequently used example when referring to semantic change. In today's usage, unique refers to something that is different or special as in, "That scarf is unique, where did you get it?" Implying that the person asking can go out and buy this same unique scarf for their very own. If we look at the etymology of the word, we find that unique comes from Latin: unicus "only, single, sole, alone of its kind," from unus "one". In other words, if it is possible for you to go out and buy the same scarf, it is not, in fact, a unique scarf at all. You would be correct if you said, "Thank you, it is unique actually, my grandma knitted it for me!"
It would be easy to look at examples like this and say that we are losing touch with our language and that society is going to hell in a very unique hand-basket. BUT maybe this is a good thing ... a craftsman is only as good as his tools* and we are all like Will Smith in Men in Black when he scoots the table across the room to better suit his needs. Words are a man-made tool meant to convey information and just as physical information exchange has changed just a little over the past couple hundred years (telegraph anyone?) so too has our vocabulary. Our words are morphing just as our technology, our society and our selves are morphing and we are changing them in order to better describe and discuss all of it.
Soooooo what if the changes in our language are hyper-accurate indications as to what is happening in society? Continuing with our example of the word unique, we can gain a vast amount of insight from this specific semantic change. This is just a theory, but go with me here.
Collectively we value one-of-a-kind things and thanks to mass production of, well, pretty much everything these days, we don't often have an opportunity to own truly unique things. And we all know there are no new ideas. There are too many people, too many neurons and only so many ways to connect the dots. In using unique to mean 'different' rather than 'only' when it is not fully accurate, we seek to impart more individuality and special-ness (yes, this is the technical term) to the objects, people and ideas to which we are referring.
If this is true, it gives some serious perspective into our culture.
It could also mean that we place so little value on true uniqueness that we no longer need a word for it. We are losing the ability to recognize the real, the genuine, the unique. Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? Because we have become so good at manufacturing faux everything that we can no longer even spot the real one. Faux sone, faux pearls, faux fur - looks just like the real thing!! This change in language could indicate that we don't even care anymore whether something is actually unique just that it looks like it is.
That is some wild perspective as well.
I'm an optimist. I would like to say that it must be the first explanation, but realistically it is likely some of both. This even extends to the now common usage of such text-shortened phrases as LOL, BTW and "Totes". While some of these may grate on you like an out of tune violin, they are a part of our culture and contribute to our living language (let's hope some are short-lived). This even includes the whole hashtag trend as a method of boiling down a situation or experience to the fewest letters possible in order to be searchable, or just humorous - as evidenced by the almost 27 million views of the #Hashtag video by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake.
It could be a comfort to us all then that this semantic evolution is as ongoing as our human evolution and as endless and circuitous as the Ouroboros referred to earlier as well as in last week's post. There is no end. There is no "correct" version of a human any more than there is a "correct" definition of a word. Both are moving targets. Both are running that asymptote toward an unseen goal point that will never be obtained. Diana Slattery calls language "installed software" but it's slow. Sometimes we all realize it's time to reboot, time for an upgrade, time to make our language something that is a better reflection of and more conducive to those using the program. In knowing that our language is not a fixed point or a finished product, we can MacGyver it like a tube sock for more effective communication with others. The MacGyver tag line was "His mind is the ultimate weapon". That is true of all of us and in many ways, our language is the trigger.
Also, check out these thought-provoking TED talks to continue the discussion:
https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_curzan_what_makes_a_word_real http://www.ted.com/talks/mark_pagel_how_language_transformed_humanity?language=en http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_language_and_thought?language=en http://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money
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Have a wonderful week, lovelies. Believe in your unique entelechy and actualize your wonderful.
*This is actually an incorrect version of this saying - and I am using it anyway in full spirit of this post