a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light ).
the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
If you know me well, you know that I have a great interest in words and their origins. For example, I love knowing that “making the grade” doesn’t have to do with school grades; rather,
The word grade is short for “gradient” and the idiom derives from railroad construction in nineteenth-century America. Back in the non-high-tech age of the nineteenth century, calculations had to be carefully made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients and this is how we ended up with “make the grade”. http://list25.com/25-startling-origins-of-popular-idioms/
But why am I so interested in the origins of language? I’m hoping to know this by the time I finish writing this.
One reason it is important to me is that I enjoy stories. I find meaning in writing them, reading them, and especially being told them. Each word or idiom has a story. Words have to start somewhere. Sometimes the origin includes a date and publication where it was first printed, but words often predate printing. English words often even predate the English itself. They originate from the Norse or the Germans, or the Galls, or any number of related language cultures. The idiom might begin with a charismatic person, an historical event, or a trade. Idioms evolve as well. No one means anything about railroad engineering when they say making the grade. As the technology for building railroads became more obscure, so did the original story of the idiom.
I read a lot. A good writer carefully chooses the right word for the idea they are trying to express. It’s called economy. A writer will often choose one word over many if there is such a word. And sometimes writers do the exact opposite. Instead of using economic language, they use expository language so that we can more fully understand their idea.
And so, I care about how I communicate, and I care about being able to understand what others are saying.
So much of my writing is on Facebook. I make choices about my language in social media. I choose whether or not to confine my language to a common vocabulary to be understood by more people or to use richer language to play my part in keeping things interesting, more literate. I believe that both are worthy ideas. We’ve stopped using punctuation, capitalization, and good grammar. Our Facebook vocabulary has become very limited; limited to a 5th grade vocabulary and lots of slang. 67 percent of Facebook language is at a 5th grade level or lower. I’m not sure if this is bad or not. It is what it is. My friends are much smarter than the average, but it is still very telling of the literacy of our society.
But why is that? Are we becoming more populist with our language? The more common and limited our language, the more likely we are to get our ideas across to a larger, more diverse audience. This is certainly noble, but maybe that’s not it. Maybe we have simply become lazier, less creative, and less literate. I’d like to think it is the former, but I suspect there is some truth to the latter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps I’m just a language snoot!
Precise, Original Language Suiting the Context
Although I like the stories behind idioms, I often take the time to express my ideas in original language. Idioms have their place in my life, but sometimes original language makes brains work a little bit more, creating the possibility for deeper understanding. An idiom can mean different things to different people. It can add color to speech, but it can also make speech worn out and dull. Precise, original language can make writing and speaking more personal and more appropriate for the context.
Knowing the original, or broader sense of a word can enrich the use of the language. There are certain words that only get used in certain phrases; otherwise, they wouldn’t be used at all. For example, “stark naked” or “stark raving mad”. Other than in older books, this word is confined to nakedness and insanity. We all know what it means, but we don’t use it. I ran from the bear in stark terror. The living room did not yet have furniture or drapes. It was very stark. These usages are becoming less and less common in regular parlance.
There are also words that we only use in it’s negative that we could use in the positive. Unkempt is very common, but kempt is very rare. It’s a great word for describing someone who is very neatly put together.
I’ve reduced the frequency of hyperbole in my language. If you ask me how many times I’ve heard a song, I might say a million times. But when I really think back, even though I’ve heard the song all of my life, I’ve really only heard it fifteen or twenty times. For example, “Horse with No Name” by America. This is a ubiquitous song. It’s playing non-stop in the world right now. But I can’t have heard it more than 30 times. I didn’t have the album. I’ve only listened to it on the radio. 30 is really a much more interesting number than a million times. It’s quantifiable. I can imagine someone sitting down in their living room and listening to it 30 times. It would take about two hours.
Knowing when to use an idiom is of consequence. For example: In a meeting at work, I might say “Hey! You really hit the nail on the head.” Then I’m the folksy, friendly guy. We all know what the idiom means implicitly, but what if I said, “You are absolutely correct! You have said precisely what needs to be said here.” There is a difference in tone. Instead of being the folksy, friendly guy, I’m the professional, smart guy. Companies look for people who have the ability to think creatively, originally, and precisely.
In government work, more so than anywhere else I’ve worked, I’ve found that management uses so much idiomatic language, “buzz words”, that I wonder if they’re actually robots incapable of original thought. What about the visionaries who created the idioms? Which would you rather be?
Knowledge of words can lead to interesting conversation. Not everyone cares about words the way I do, but some people find it engaging. Of course there’s the tedious windbag, beer drinker in Cheers whose encyclopedic knowledge of the world is unwelcome in conversation over peanuts and beer. But that’s showing off. Some people actually share an interest in language, like the men in my family. There are other logophiles both casual and fanatic.
My love of words begins with my father’s sermons. My father was a preacher and is very much a linguist. In interpreting the scripture he often started with the Hebraic or Greek origins of words. I’m sure this was tedious to some people, but it wasn’t for me. It was often my favorite part of the sermon.
I know I’m not like everyone. Just ask my wife. I don’t expect everyone to resonate with what I am writing here. Nor do I think everyone should care about language the way I do, but I know I’m not the only language geek in my large circle of Facebook friends.
Other language posts