Slippery as eels
Have you noticed that English, actually American English, is spreading to diverse cultures the world around? As the population of the United States (including our Island portion of it) has become more ethnically variegated, minority residents are enlarging their shares of our national demographic.
At the same time, somewhat contrariwise, the English language - Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Elizabethan, Revolutionary, American - is on its way to becoming the global spoken currency of commerce and cross-cultural conversation.
Some proud national cultures are unhappy. The French, for instance, are unlimbering that famous shrug they do so well. No surprise, I suppose. But even so, they are teaching English in their schools and sending up-and-coming French executives to the U.S. for immersion training in American English.
Some equally proud but more frankly adaptable ethnic divisions have contented themselves with what appears to be inevitable, in the name of business and even, in rare instances, in admiration of Americanism in general. (Be assured, the French will not be signing on with this crowd anytime soon.)
Whether you are horrified at the prospect of global dominance by American English or gladdened by the prospect, it is certainly true that no one can predict what the outcome of this convergence will be. History teaches that no language emerges unscathed from its employment by humankind. As certainly as American culture, inserted like a language mole into ancient, sophisticated, and venerable communities, will effect grave change in the way those people conduct themselves, it is also unquestionable that our language will be transformed in return, in ways we cannot imagine.
Indeed, we're busy daily, wearing out words, bulking them up with worn-out adjectives, promoting new concoctions and demoting old standards. Think about how incredible has come to mean amazing or astonishing, then lost all its authority, so now it's very incredible. Or, remember incredible's brother unbelievable. It's neither incredible nor unbelievable anymore, because those words have become empty of meaning, so to patch them up we've jammed them together when we declare that something is incredibly unbelievable. I think it will be a long time before the rest of the world figures this out.
I have some examples of how this works. Consider the word culture. It used to mean a "particular form, stage, or type of intellectual development or civilization." That's according to the Oxford dictionary.
Dr. David Womersley, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, now defines the word, rather expansively, as follows: "Mistakenly believed by Matthew Arnold to denote 'the best that has been thought and said', now in our modern way of speaking happily broadened to embrace those qualities and activities so much more prevalent amongst us, to wit the transient, the gross, the obscene, the pert, the criminal, the trivial, the impious, the shallow, the offensive, the mediocre, the banal, the perverse, the mercenary, the heinous, the strident, the unnatural, and the dull."
Dr. Womersley goes on, acidly, to define cultural studies as, "The vacuous pondering the absent."
Dr. Womersley is one of a collection of scholars and intellectuals whose definitions, mostly scathing, have been gathered by Digby Anderson into a slim, pocket-sized volume called "The Dictionary of Dangerous Words." It was published in England by something called the Social Affairs Unit, and it's sold by the pounds.
(By the way, I guess I should have taken note of the British irritation at the Americanism of language. They are, many of them, blistered with unhappiness.)
Or you might consider the word victim, which the Oxford dictionary defines as "a person or thing injured or destroyed ... as a result of event or circumstance ..."
In Mr. Anderson's compilation, Simon Heffer, a journalist who writes for the Daily Mail and the New Statesman, defines victim this way: "One who, through no fault of his or her own, can be held responsible for nothing. Prominent victims are teenage delinquents, criminals, illegal immigrants, single parents, many public sector workers, many trades unionists, the unemployed, homosexuals and child molesters. They are all victims of our uncaring society and, as a result, none is in any way to blame for his or her actions."
Has he got an agenda, or what?
The widening prevalence of English language, spoken and written, has thinned out the raw materials, at least in the opinions of Mr. Anderson's collaborators.
He writes of his flock, "They chose the words. We simply specified the words should be words which once meant something good and now mean something bad, which once meant something and now mean nothing or vice versa, or which have in some interesting sense changed...."
"...The writers of prefaces to dictionaries are forever pointing out that language is a living thing and constantly changes. The meaning of words changes. But it seldom does so totally and for everyone. The words in this dictionary are dangerous for precisely this reason. They have acquired new uses and meanings for some people in some situations. Their new associations are rarely declared outright."
What all this brings home is that this newspaper trade, dealing as it does with words, is a dicey game. The very stock in trade is slippery as eels. Putting our words in your hands multiplies the chances of misunderstanding, without question, but it also represents one of those leaps of faith that make life a wild ride worth taking. That is, if we both survive, and we're still talking to one another.