The English Language: Writer Randy Ross Ponders the Complexities of the Way we Speak (The Final Word Opinion Column)

So to speak: The vicissitudes of the English language

Language, both written and spoken, is the currency we use to communicate ideas and feelings. It separates us from the other beasts in the field. Eons ago, on some ancient African plain, our hairy ancestors encountered even hairier Neanderthals and grunted at them. The Neanderthals merely stared back in mute dumbness, but our cousins spoke. The Neanderthals are no longer with us — but language is.

Like fashion and music, our speech has molded itself to meet mankind’s ever-changing needs. The nuances of words, their very definitions, can have the same meaning for ages and then mutate into something very different. You would not go to a picnic with a flyswatter, for example, and say that you’re ready to “assassinate” the bees; nor would you be wise to come out of a business meeting and tell your friends that you just had a nice “intercourse” with your boss.

Giggle all you want, but this is what sends first-time readers of Shakespeare into a frenzy and perplexes even the most rabid lover of poetry. Is this really English? Did people once actually speak that way?

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Yes, indeed. And lucky for us there are smart people in this world whose job it is to catalog words, both the newly coined ones and those destined for the dustpan of phraseology.

Each year the editors of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary add about 100 “new” words to our official lexicon, and ditch others that have become obsolete. Words such as “e-mail,” “Web site,” “freaky,” “tweet,” and “f-word” found their way in a few years ago. From “f-word” we morphed into “f-bomb”; even though we can’t use the real word in polite company, it can have nuclear force. (By the way, the phrase “going nuclear” — along with “going postal” — arrived a few years back.)

If you thought Oprah was out of your life, think again. The “aha moment” that Oprah coined made the list last year. “Man cave” is another recent arrival, as is “bucket list.” These make sense: Boomers are living longer, and are still trailblazing their way through the culture. Since the days of Woodstock, musical words have crowded into our language (“boogie-woogie,” “disco duck”). The latest entrant is “earworm” (when a certain song infects your brain, and you hear it all day and all of the night).

If any of this gives you “brain cramp” (also new last year), just remember that without an evolving language we could not communicate and grow as a society. “Tablet” used to be the things Moses schlepped around the desert; now the word brings to mind instant communication and e-books (another recent addition).

The “brainiacs” (added two years ago) at Webster’s also acknowledge that where you live often dictates how you speak. Our Hudson Valley, for example, offers several local curiosities. A heavy rain storm is a “gullywasher”; when it rains that much, the “crick” might overflow. Your “ruf” (pronounced like “woof”) might leak. “Youse” might live in Putnam or Columbia or Dutchess county, but these regionalisms are part of your footprint just as surely as Rip Van Winkle trampled “acrost” this area all those many years ago.

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Would Shakespeare recognize his native tongue? Possibly; we can certainly understand the meaning of his plays and sonnets some 400 years after he wrote them. Word-wise, we see where we’ve been — and where we’re going. So when your father says that he once “went commando” during the Vietnam War, just smile and reply that we really do have a lot in common.

» More from writer Randy Ross


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