Sunday, March 06, 2011

Tempus Fugit

I find it fascinating how language evolves in general, and more specifically, how it does with new inventions. Each toy we create brings with it new terminology, words that weren't needed before.

Automobiles. Airplanes. Jets. Movies, from moving pictures ...

Sometimes, old stuff gets renamed–jewelry becomes bling-bling, then just bling. And there is drift, whereupon a word that means one thing comes to mean something else. I can remember when "gay," meant light-hearted and happy. Call somebody gay now? Not the same.

"Web Log" put together two old words, but cut to "blog?" Yes, there were ship's logs, but nobody called them "slogs ..."

Before digital devices, clocks and watches–a "watch? Wouldn't "glance" or "look" have made more sense?–had faces with twelve numbers, and the positions of the hands gave you the time. Little hand on the two, big hand on the three, it was two-fifteen o'clock, or a quarter after, from the four divisions of the twelve hour dial. Little hand almost to the three and big hand on the nine? It was two-forty-five, or a quarter to three.

Past the half hour mark–that's the six–you could rattle off how many minutes to the hour.
Twenty 'til. Ten of. Like that. After a while, you didn't even need the numbers, because you knew where they were. 

If you grew up after digital clocks came to be, chances are you don't use the quarter-hour designation, nor the minute countdown to the hour, any more than you use two bits, four bits, six bits, when referring to pocket change.

There are thousands of words in English that didn't exist as such even fifty years ago. If I had to guess, I'd expect there to be thousands more come to be more quickly than that hence.

As writers, you have to go with the flow to an extent. You don't have to use cutting edge patois (though the typo "patios," was kind of  interesting itself) which tends to be past if it's made it to the written form for more than a few minutes, but you speak to a current audience. This is one of the ways you can tell a story written fifty or a hundred years ago instantly. No mater how timeless the prose is, regarding pop-tags of the day, it won't have the current tags in it. And if it used pop-speak of the day, it looks really dated. "Groovy, man ..."

I don't much care for the term "fail," when what is meant is "failure." Ditto "My bad." when you mean "My mistake." But I use them. (I still can't bring myself to modify absolutes, such as "very unique" or "complete stop," or "free gift." And "hopefully" when I mean, "I hope."

Mostly those have shifted, too, but somewhere, you have to draw a line ...


Stan said...

Yep. Have to hate those "cutting edge patios." (I think you might have meant "patois," but I wouldn't be surprised if your spell-checker switched it on you!)

Technology continues to rush by at an ever-increasing pace. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that common lingo follows the same course....

Anonymous said...

Draw your kerambit and hold the line! You're a writer. We while away the wee hours of the night at the Government Printing Office lamenting the demise of the language. Yes, it evolves and slang and jargon are gonna be there. Remember the rule that you can break the rules once you know what they are. We call Merriam-Webster's Collegiate the "it's all good" dictionary because everything's allowable: variant spellings, etc.

Some new nauseating affectations: "include but not limited to." Top of my list. Soon you will never see the word "include" in isolation. And it was a perfectly fine word. Don't believe me? Watch. And the stomach-churning alliterative government doubling of verbs and adjectives. It all began with command and control (now promoted to C4I). Efficient and effective, cooperate and coordinate, disablement and dismantlement. You get points if they are nuanced shades of meaning. Tune in for a disquisition on creeping pluralization of everything (freedoms) at another session. Thank you for listening.

J.D. Ray said...

Heard a comedian the other night talking about 'people in the South, who have interesting phrases. For instance, there's "y'all", a word that means "everyone". Then there's "all y'all", which evidently means "everyone, and then everyone else".'

Lee McAulay said...

Interesting how you jump from "ship's log" to "watch" without making the link...
I always thought that "watch" was tied in with keeping watch or guard over something, like on board a ship, and you needed a timepiece to measure when you came off watch and the next person came on.
It will be interesting to see how the English language is affected by the rise of eBooks. In print, UK books are "Americanised" by changing the language prior to USA publication, e.g. pavement to sidewalk, boot to trunk, colour to color, etc. When we upload eBooks, do any of us change the language?
And does it really matter?