Language Abuse

Aug 05
2009

Mike Hatton

Mike Hatton


I love words and I especially like learning their etymologies. Reading etymologies is the main reason I only buy unabridged dictionaries. If I could convince my wife, I would get a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I am not persuasive enough to talk her into spending $1000 on a dictionary.

With all of the new forms of communications like emailing, texting and blogs, people are writing more than ever. People aren’t just communicating with their friends in close proximity; they are talking to people from all over the world. This has accelerated the fact that the English language is changing by adding new words and using old words in new ways. I generally consider this a good thing. Even though I love researching the archaic meanings of words and am a bit of a purist, I do not believe the language should be set in stone and never allowed to change. In fact, here is an example of a conversation I seem to have quite often. I will use a word in a new way or use something quite new and I get this response.

Them: “Is that a word?”
Me: “Well, it isn’t a paragraph”
Them: “I mean, is it in the dictionary?”

I then have to explain how words have to be in common use before they get added to a dictionary. Some people seem to think that there is a group tasked in inventing new words and they add them to the dictionary to disseminate them, and those words are the only true words.

Inventing a new word or changing a word from a verb to a noun is a legitimate thing to do. For example, Shakespeare invented 1,700 words. Here is a list http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/resources/shakespeare-words.htm

Shakespeare took the verb “Control” and used it as the noun “Control” and everyone understood what he meant and now we have a new noun that he invented. That is the way language works.

There is not just one English dictionary, and the dictionaries do not always agree on what should be part of the language or not. Debates happen when dictionaries are written on what changes should be added or not. Just because a lot of people are making the same mistake does not necessarily mean it should be set in stone. Some of these mistakes have become so common that they have to be added to the dictionary. Sometimes this weakens the language. An interesting case is when someone is using a word with the opposite meaning it actually has.

The one that has been bugging me the most lately, is people saying “literally” when they mean “figuratively”. You are only supposed to say “literally” when you are saying a phrase that is usually an idiom, but you want people to take the literal meaning instead. So if someone said “They are skating on thin ice” you could mean they are taking a big risk or they are actually skating on the thin ice. The word “literally” can make this clear.

I was watching the news and a doctor said that they had a man in the hospital that was “literally hanging on the edge of a cliff by his fingertips”. He wasn’t. He was in a coma in the hospital. This was even on ABC news. I also heard a scientist refer to three atoms as being “literally a handful of atoms”. I would think you can get more that three atoms in your hand unless you have extremely small hands or extremely large atoms. If highly educated doctors and scientist are getting this wrong, then I am afraid “literally” will entirely lose its meaning. If “literally” disappears, then you will have no way to tell people to disregard the idiom you are using.

For some reason people keep saying “could care less” when they really mean “couldn’t care less”. I am not sure when this started, but we were certainly able to say it correctly when I was a kid. If someone said that mountain was so tall it couldn’t possibly be taller. It makes sense. If they said, “That mountain was so tall, it could be taller,” you would think they were nuts. Yet people are essentially saying “I care so little, that I could care less”. More people are getting this wrong more than right nowadays and for some reason this disturbs me.

I have a few other grammatical scabs to pick at. Every single day, I see someone write “then” when they mean “than”. This is becoming so common, that I expect the word “than” is going to disappear unless action is taken.

I see on a regular basis that people say “mute” when they mean “moot”. This is probably happening because “Moot” sounds funny, so they do not believe it is an actual word. Well it is, so cut it out.

There are some people that do not know that a rooster is a chicken. I find this astounding, as do the chickens. I have called a rooster a chicken and I got “corrected” by someone saying, “No, it’s not a chicken, it is a rooster”. I then had to explain to an adult that a rooster is a male chicken and a hen is a female chicken. Didn’t they learn this before kindergarten?

By the way it’s “Champing at the bit” not “Chomping”.

It is “bated breath” not “baited”. This comes from the same root as “abated”.

It is “should’ve” or “should have” not “should of”. This one has taken years off my life.

“Scuba” is an Acronym. It stands for “self contained underwater breathing apparatus”. “IBM” is not. If you say each letter, it is not an acronym. It is a list of initials. An acronym is a word that can be pronounced. I guess that puts L2CAP somewhere in the middle.

I admit some of these are pet peeves, but now that people are writing these mistakes down in the internet, they take a life of their own spreading across the English language like a disease. In the past, editors would weed these mistakes out of copy before they saw print. Now these mistakes have been spreading from the internet onto television and print.

The funny thing is that I have probably abused the English language in some way in this article that is driving some English major crazy. All I have to say to those anal retentive chuckleheads is, “Get a life.”

2 Responses to “Language Abuse”

    Mark Pennington says:

    Top 40 Grammar Pet Peeves
    If you are grammatically challenged, or let’s face it, a grammatical snob who will catch the grammatical error in the title of this blog, you owe it to yourself to check out these grammatical pet peeves and tips at Top 40 Grammar Pet Peeves

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