I was. I mean, let’s face it. One of the coolest parts of language is the anarchy of them. We collectively and without leadership decide what words mean.
Weirdly, of course, many of us want to give up this leaderless anarchy to the Dictionary Gods (or Dictionary Aristocracy) but they actually listen to us. It is they who gingerly listen to us and do their best to form decisions about what we are saying, and what these words mean.
And so, we keep talking and writing and language keeps changing as we communicate and exchange meaning with each other. Some of us, usually the young, are more creative and playful with our language. We twist it and turn it and mould it into new words. A few examples of this sort of word emergence and change are:
- Hangry meaning the anger and crankiness you feel because you are hungry. Fair enough, a new and necessary word.
- Adorkable, meaning that perfect combination of dorky but adorable. I’m sure we all know a few examples where this word is the perfect modifier. In fact, I wish this word existed back when I was young. It would have helped a lot.
- LOL, which is now in the dictionary, and which is a classic word which was invented, and then quickly changed meaning. See this post on at TED talk about texting that explains this perfectly.
- YOLO meaning “you only live once” which is being considered for dictionary inclusion. And, herein lies the problem of the dictionary. It’s useful, but conservative. Is this word a fad or a word that will last as long as this edition of the dictionary does?
They have to be. And dictionaries are written by humans. And, further, think about this. All dictionaries are slightly different. Certainly they are useful. But they are not a supreme intelligence sent down by God to tell you what words mean. We decide what they mean, and we do it in a creative, playful very human way. The editors of dictionaries simply attempt to grasp what we’re creating.
Anne Curzan Explains This All Perfectly
Anne Curzan does a wonderful job explaining this in her TEDx talk. I had been pouring over document after document, trying to figure out a way to explain how and why words evolve and change meaning, but was coming up short. I just couldn’t synthesize it all eloquently enough. Thankfully, I don’t have to. Anne did a great job. Basically, it all comes down to how human we are.
Those Pesky Teenagers
The Oxford Dictionary Blog explains away why words change meaning this way: Teenagers, perhaps more than other groups, want to exclude those outside their group. Hence, change the meaning of words so that those outside are literally left in the dark, unable to communicate. If bad now means good and sick means “not sick”, well, you’re going to have trouble following the conversation, pops.
But Were Those Mischievous Teenagers Behind the Literally Fiasco?
First of all, I have no idea. Second, seriously — Remember all those headlines literally freaking out over “literally” getting an updated definition last spring? Were you really surprised by the new meaning? Had you literally been living under a rock and had never heard anyone use literally in a figurative way? Really? You waited until you read the new definition in the dictionary, and then got all confused because you weren’t sure what to do?
Are you kidding?
Well, if that does describe you, and you are really confused and unsure what to do with this new definition, there’s an app for that. Of course, if you really are that uptight and clueless, I’m not sure a Chrome extension is going to help you all that much.
Second, it has been used this way since at least 1827, so, again, get over it.
Okay. Enough of my opinion. How in the world did it happen?
Auto Antonymy: Mind Blown. It’s All Over the Place
I had always thought that those rare birds words which can hold two disparate meanings were, in fact, rare. But they’re not. Our language is crawling with them. According to Justin Erik Halldor Smith, there are many, many of these words. Literally seems like it must have cleaved, or diverged into two separate meanings. And so it is an auto antonym: a word that has two opposite meanings. Like, for example, to dust. This can mean to either remove or lightly cover in dust. Or most of our prepositions. Or, goodness, there are so many. Justin ends with this:
“Yet one might conjecture that it is the general condition of words that they have their meaning only to the extent that they threaten to mean their opposite.”
It seems that literally is an example of a word whose meaning jutted out to the extent that it flipped and now holds the opposite meaning, while still retaining its original. Okay, so there is an element of theoretical physics in the study of language and linguistics, then.
At least that much is certain.