Language, words, and relevance #amwriting

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, English is like water–it shifts, it flows, and it takes what it wants from every other language it comes across. That naughty  penchant for word-thievery is what makes English so much fun to play with.

This continual evolution is also what makes it so difficult to work with. The very roots of English encourage the continual changing soundscape, because it is a living language.

Think about it–a bunch of smart guys in Victorian England applied the rules of a dead language, Latin, to an evolving language with completely different roots, Frisian glued to Old French, added a bunch of made-up words and usages invented by William Shakespeare, and called it “Grammar.”

Consider these words that either signify lazy speech habits or a shift in the language:

  • Supposably… oh wait, did you mean supposedly?
  • Liberry… no sir you must go to the library for those books–the liberry is not a truthful fruit and may give you hives.
  • Feberry... I hope you mean it will happen in February because Feberry will never come.
  • Honestness... In all honesty, I am not sure what to make of that one.

My favorite new word is Prolly, which my granddaughters seem to think means Probably, but in all honestness, doesn’t.

It’s not a new problem.

Jonathan Swiftwriter and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, complained to Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, in 1712: “Our Language is extremely imperfect. Its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities.” He went so far as to say, “In many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.”

I feel that may prolly be a little harsh.

But this all boils down to what our current language really sounds like, and what it may become in fifty years. If a true classic like The Hobbit is written in too old-fashioned a style for young people to read now, that doesn’t bode well for the longevity of the books we authors are so carefully crafting now.

But these shifts in sound and accent and the influx of new words into the language have a side effect I find disturbing. As frequently happens, this problem is caused by people with good intentions.

A great commentary was posted in the Guardian a while back, called The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape, written by Robert McFarlane and posted February 27, 2015. He states that many common words are being omitted from school dictionaries now in an effort to modernize them. (Acorn, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow.)

How will a modern reader understand a book like Watership Down if the meanings of those words  which describe common plants and animals are no longer relevant? And that beautiful, highly controversial book was only first published in 1972.

If I could say one thing to those who compile dictionaries, it is that all the many words that make up our English language have relevance and should be included in what is being marketed as a truly comprehensive dictionary.

At some point, a curious reader is going to want to know the meaning of a word. If that word appeared in the dictionary at one time, why must it be removed just because a committee of scholars with narrow life experiences don’t use it in conversation? This is especially important in a school dictionary.

At least the publishers of most dictionaries seem to be aware of this modern fact: In an on-line dictionary they have unlimited space and the per-page cost is not an issue as it is in a printed book. So, as the language shifts, I hope they continue to ensure the comprehensiveness of their online dictionaries by adding the new words and meanings and continuing to explain the old.

Conversation and literature both occur in Modern English, but conversation and literature are completely different mediums. For us to omit words from the dictionary because they have fallen out of common use in some people’s conversational milieu is shortsighted. At that point, the dictionary is not as comprehensive as we are pretending it is.

How will the landscape of our language look in fifty years? I sometimes doubt I will be understood, speaking in my ancient Northwest American dialect, using words that have no relevance. Without a comprehensive dictionary, how will the words I write today be understood by my great-grandchildren?

Prolly they won’t be.

Credits and Attributions:

Watership Down, by Richard Adams, first edition cover, Rex Collings, Publisher, 1972, Fair Use via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, May 8). Watership Down. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:37, May 13, 2018, from


Filed under writing

14 responses to “Language, words, and relevance #amwriting

  1. There are a couple of authors I’ve read lately that use outdated words and I often wondered were they trying to impress their readers. One was a writer of historical fiction and I questioned his use of a couple words, His reply, it authenticated his story because the word would have been used by educated people of that time. I still wonder if he wasn’t trying to impress the reader or is this something that is acceptable?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Chuck! It is difficult to know what an author’s motives are for using words that look so out of place, even if they are authentic. Some people will enjoy that work and others won’t. It may be he is writing for what he perceives as a “literary” reader, but I read literary fiction, and large, ungainly words don’t feature prominently in it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    A thoughtworthy article to contemplate 😎


  3. “For us to omit words from the dictionary because they have fallen out of common use in some people’s conversational milieu is shortsighted.”

    I couldn’t agree more. And to take words often used incorrectly and change the definition to suit that incorrect usage just because it’s a word commonly misunderstood, makes no sense to me, either. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree–but I look at modern English like I did my late mother’s home-cooking. Sometimes it was best not to mention the texture!

    Liked by 1 person

    • True! 😀 But it’s not that I mind them adding an extra bit at the bottom explaining how a word is sometimes used in the vernacular. I just hate them deciding after years (decades? centuries? longer?) that a word suddenly means something completely different. I find that insulting (implying that most people are too dumb to understand the true meaning of the word) and annoying in the extreme. No offense to your late mother’s home-cooking, of course. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hah hah! Like our lexicographers (people who compile dictionaries) Mother meant well! But I see your point–it’s a little disconcerting how our words have so many different meaning and hearing or reading it in context is the only way you know what is meant–if you are at all up to date, that is. My Grandkids enjoy educating me when my knowledge grows stale as last week’s bread 😉

        Liked by 2 people