The Same 7,000 Words, But Different
According to Oxford Dictionaries on its “Save The Words” site, “90% of everything we write is communicated by only 7,000 words.”
As an editor, I read many instances of authors resorting to describing with familiar words something that could be described by one, most of the time because they don’t know what that word is. Just as often, I’m forced to let those instances stand, because that one word is so obscure today that even in context it won’t be understood by most of the author’s readers. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to look a word up while reading contemporary literature, be it online or offline.
I’m also seeing something that could be called the “green” movement in English: many common words are being reduced, reused, and recycled, as we’ve seen with “friend,” “heart,” and “action” the verb. There are familiar words transmogrified into new usages that, although subject to ridicule, are used more commonly than we like to admit in some circles, like “deliverables,” “pushback,” and the terrible-to-behold corporate verbs “incent” and “action.”
These words and many like them are just as familiar as the “real” words they’re standing in for, but because they’re stand-ins, we have to wonder why.
Is it creative or lazy to “friend” someone instead of “befriending” them? As current usage stands, their meanings are the same.
Is it part of a global dialect being created by people who communicate over long geographical, social, generational, and lexical distances feeling the need to ensure they’re understood by using “old” words in a new way?
Is the verb “action” used by people who want to put a more dynamic picture in our minds than “process,” “implement,” or “do?”
Wonder with me. What do you think is the aim of repurposing words that already have such a well-used past? What do you think will be the result?
This is not a rant, but yours is welcome.
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Shakirah, I'm such a lover of words and grammar, probably because I spoke Finnish first, and then had to learn English when I went to school. It gave me such an appreciation of the written and spoken word, and I find it fascinating (and sometimes a little disconcerting) to see the constant evolution of language to meet "changing times", with a loss, sometimes, of beautiful words and phrases.
I think the result will be what it continues to be: an ever-changing, ever-evolving, imperfect jargon, where understanding and misunderstanding will be equally rampant in the written and spoken word. Cheers! Kaarina
Your always flawless delivery in print certainly shows your love for words and grammar, Kaarina. Finnish as a first language, then? Been itching to find out if I've been pronouncing your name correctly (in my head), and now I know I probably wasn't, lol. How would "Kaarina" be pronounced the Finnish way?
ShakirahDawud Thanks so much for the lovely compliment Shakirah! Since there really wasn't an English pronunciation of my name (it's not Corina), most people pronounce it in English as Kureena or Kreena.
In Finnish (and I'll try my best here) Gawrrreenah, emphasis on the first syllable and a rolling R. We'll have to speak in person sometime and I'll say it out loud, haha!
"Flawless deliver in print"? I'm honoured. Cheers! Kaarina P.S. And as bdorman264 would question...yes, this is the "Canadian" spelling I use:)
Sounds gorgeous (I was waaay off, the two aa's made me think it was a longer "a" sound, as in "mare"), and I do hope to hear you say it sometime soon. My own first name, Taqiyyah (uncommon even in Arabic), also has a letter with no English equivalent (the "q" is a throat/tongue click), so I also have to demo it a few times and then let others give up and say "Takeeya," lol. And Shakirah also has a rolling "r" that's tends to be overlooked...
As part of language, names themselves (common and uncommon) have fascinating stories, eh?
ShakirahDawud I look forward to hearing your name in person! And as I review my last comment, I see that my flawless delivery certainly had a major flaw: go figure:)
Cheers my friend! Kaarina
I love that you're asking these questions! Thinking about, commenting on, and talking about words will only lead to new and exciting discoveries in language. How and why we communicate are considerations just as important as *what* we communicate. Sometimes words are like cozy sweatpants to me. When I'm informally chatting with a friend and I'm not "on guard" against making editorial errors, I overuse and abuse "really"--like nobody's business! "I'm REALLY excited about working with this new client." "I've been REALLY tired lately." "Are you REALLY going to wear that?" Amazing how this little word seems to ... fit me at that moment. Just like my old, tired, but still-going-strong sweats.
Oh, you know, I've gone through several idiosyncratic language phases over the years, and I don't think I even use the word "goodness" except as an exasperated exclamation anymore, lol. But I like to check on the origins of sayings I don't ordinarily use before I use them, so I can have a complete picture of what's being invoked when I say it. And I love (attempting) to coin new phrases, or string old ones together in new ways... But you're a Level X Word-Lover, Jessica, you know what I mean! Any old word/new usages you've seen crop up while editing recently?
Going to have to check out SaveTheWords, didn't know about it. Read this over the weekend in the NYT, a look at some of the many different uses of common words like "run." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/opinion/29winchester.html?_r=1
I like the precision of language, how changing a word to a different synonym can really change the meaning or tone of a statement, based upon different cultures and connotations. Technology certainly has an impact, as does various forms of culture. Google has become a verb and I get what you mean if you call yourself a marketing or social media "Jedi." (I also think it's funny that LF doesn't know how to spell Jedi. Heh.) Hmm, still thinking about the evolution of words and language; I know I used the word 'appreciate' once that the reader didn't get my context; she thought I meant it as "like, gratitude" and I meant it as "understand, comprehend." Totally changed the tone of our email conversation, FWIW.
Good point about synonyms, Davina. I agonize over those when writing product descriptions and brochures because a little to the left or right, and the image projected turns into something completely different, like a kaleidoscope. And I can imagine that conversation probably went somewhere you weren't trying to go with that misunderstanding of your "appreciate" usage.
3HatsComm And I'm holding onto that article for a more thorough read--thanks for sharing it.
I think so many of the word changes stem from social changes: larger acceptance of social media and even a greater societal understanding of business - hence the adoption of corporate jargon into everyday speak (which I really don't like). I'm recalling trendy business words like "dashboard" (to me, this was on a car) and "bandwidth" (um... this is tech/scientific term that biz folks decided was oh-so-popular to use to convey the word "ability"). Makes you wonder how these terms catch on. Perhaps it's the journalist's fault - i.e. he writes a biz article using a word a bit differently, the next journalist uses it, the reader uses it, then the colleague uses it? Then it trickles down to non-biz folks? I'm a purist, though. I like the English language and want it to retain some integrity, but I know this is not how the world works. Change is inevitable.
CrytzerFry The "bandwidth" one is new to me, and yes, makes me cringe, too. As creative writers, though, I think we tend to pick and choose our purisms. Shakespeare sure did!
Two forces at work in language: we want to associate the unfamiliar (ie. the screen of a computer, circa 1985) with the familiar (ie. the work surface of our desks), so new meanings like 'desktop' evolve; and groups within society want to show they are different, so adopt jargon, slang and adaptations that (initially) require you to be 'on the inside' to understand. ShakirahDawud CrytzerFry
LorneDaniel CrytzerFry Ah, that's a great connection to make, Lorne--makes perfect sense, too, for so many words we use for new (unprecedented) things and ways of doing things. Thank you for that insight, Lorne.
It seems like a lot of the words morph into being from corporate or tech lingo being used and also giving it a more modern appeal. However, I have to go with transmogrified as my huh? word of the day. Thanks for making me smarter ma'am.....:)
bdorman264 Transmogrified, a favorite, but I don't get to use it anywhere near as often as I'd like! Business and tech jargon giving the language a more modern appeal, hm! I wonder if that's what we're after, to sound more avante-garde...
ShakirahDawud bdorman264 Good word Bill, is that from Calvin and Hobbes? Didn't he have a box that was a Transmogrification device?
3HatsComm bdorman264 Yep, here it is: http://www.lovine.com/hobbes/comics/transmogrifier.html
I think that people get lazy and that it becomes easier to just use whatever comes to mind than to try and find the "write" words.
TheJackB That's always been true, although it's probably being exaggerated in this age of immediate responses and impulsive communiques.
It's so interesting to me when words are re-purposed or invented or used in new ways -- one of the things I find so interesting about language is that it's constantly changing and morphing. I don't know if it's creative or just the way things change in how we use or do things, and consequently how language changes, or that we are just shortening things for convenience.... like "text me" or "photoshop it in" For something like "friend me," it seems a little different because it's a term actually coined by FB so to say "befriend" would not technically be accurate. By the way, I like calling it the green movement, very cool!
juliamunroemartin Lol, that "green" movement just sort of showed up in my head, and I laughed, but I thought it fit, the whole "reduce, reuse, recycle" thing going on here with words. It's fun, and what's also interesting is how some words change meanings permanently and others revert to their "standard" meaning after a short period of time.
I think a very, very few cases make sense - such as 'friend' when you're using it explicity in the context of Facebook. When you mean it in some other context, then 'befriend' or 'make friends with' is much better. Otherwise, the misuse/re-purposing of words drives me to total distraction. For example, for decades I worked in the field of 'Information Security' -- now it has become 'Information Assurance.' First, there's absolutely no need for a new term for this field. Second, and equally important, is that 'assurance' is absolutely NOT the right word! You clearly do not simply want to pat someone on the shoulder and say, "There, there. Your information is going to be just fine. Don't worry your pretty little head for a tiny second about it." There is already enough confusion among the 'sure' words -- ensure, insure, and assure -- without introducing a totally new twist. Further, if different people have different meanings for the same word, that makes communication so much more difficult. There are already plenty of words that have multiple meanings, and using them can introduce ambiguity, so why add to this problem? Further, over time, writers of today will be misunderstood by readers of tomorrow. It's one thing not be be able to readily decipher Beowulf; it's quite another not to be able to understand something written 10 years ago, by a writer who may even still be alive. Language is initially totally arbitrary - at some time some one decided that 'chair' is the word to describe a particular type of furniture that you sit on. But once a word acquires a shared understanding, there's really no need to change its definition, or to come up with a new word that means the same thing.
Jaton West I can see your point with how people will easily date themselves by using words in many of these "new" ways. People could quiet easily say "I love New York," but at some point someone decided to vocalize the symbol itself, which has an overlapping meaning (it would be funny if we were saying, "I star New York," huh?) probably in a bid to freshen up a cliche, and it caught on. But you wonder how long it'll last. I don't think it will be that difficult to understand 10 years from now, but I can see how using "standard" meanings could avoid the confusion.
I don't know a lot about repurposing words but I've noticed how younger people use words like "sweet' and "cool" and :"good:" Words become devalued over time (this fascinates me). As a child I was encouraged to be a "good" girl. I was SUCH a good girl that I swore I'd never encourage my kids with that word. It became devalued for me. So it was ironic to me that in later years the response i heard from my kids when I asked a question, rather than "no" was , 'I'm good." I even use that response myself!
How do these things evolve? How does "sweet" now mean cool, awesome, wonderful? LOL Gotta love the English language, except when it's massacred by journalists in particular who should have a good command of it (there's my rant, but I'm not in a ranting mood so I'll just leave it there!)
7000 words you say? Makes me want to find a site where I can learn a word a day!
Lori Yeah, Lori, I clicked the link to savethewords.com and tried--really tried--to adopt a word. But I was totally overwhelmed, lol! I do like my Merriam-Webster words of the day, though, FWIW.
I'm not sure these words are being devalued so much as gaining another dimension in meaning, but watching how they change from "sweet" change from sugar to wonderful really is fascinating, and I'd love to connect the dots there, you know, who was the first person to coin it where, and what was going through his or her head when it was coined...
ShakirahDawud I LOVE learning the origin of words! finding out how they evolve would be much harder to do and probably more interesting!
Merriam-Webster words of the day! I'll check it out - thanks!
Language evolves - and when it stops evolving it's dead, and I'm sad Latin is dead.
But corporate speak - "dynamic picture" is kind. Anyone who embraces jargon has a compensation problem.
jennwhinnem Yeah, most of the words I saw on savethewords.com had these convoluted Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. There was that good period of time way back (I have no idea exactly which time period, forgive my laziness) when English-speakers embraced the Romance languages and started stuffing our Germanic lexicon with them, which was fun but bound to come to an end sometime.
But now we've got phrases like the one you mentioned, and I'm not sure it's going to hang around any longer than the previous trend did, but I'm interested in finding out why people feel almost compelled to use these types of phrases these days.
KOKEdit Certainly, Kathy; so do I. I'm curious as to why this might be happening now, where it could be coming from. Do you think it's simply the influence of the newer generation, the "global" culture, or a combination?
KOKEdit Yes, it has, of course. I'm not talking about the shift in language in general, I mean this particular shift. I like thinking about those kinds of "connect-the-dots" things. I know, I know: I need to just do the research myself instead of soliciting speculation.