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:.
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 Origin of phrase hook up 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 fallacyor the belief that the original sense must be the correct In the case of decimatethe 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. How did you score the tickets? Lex hooked me up.
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 Origin of phrase hook up hook up.
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 s, the verb started appearing in college campus slang in the various sexual permutations. So does this cause confusion? The sense is usually apparent from the context.