Feb 14 2012

The evolution of language

In a comment to a previous post Jared A suggested that I would benefit, especially in my posts on religion and atheism, from using words more precisely in order to make my points clearer. In particular, he said that the word ‘myths’ usually refer to sacred narratives, while ‘scriptures’ refer to sacred writings. The beliefs in the scriptures, if codified, are referred to as ‘doctrine’ and if such beliefs are required they are referred to as ‘dogma’. There is no requirement that any of the scriptures, myths, or doctrine be dogma.

This is good advice and I will try to follow it. But there was one other word in Jared’s list whose meaning took me by surprise. He said that the word ‘cult’ refers to ‘the set of external rituals and practices in totality’. He later clarified by saying that the word’s root is ‘culture’ and he quotes an article that says that the word ‘cult’ has come to ‘connote the total cultural aspects of religion’.

Clearly this is not the way that the word ‘cult’ is currently understood, Nowadays it is used pejoratively to describe a small group that is held together by strong devotion to beliefs that other people consider extreme or bizarre.

This illustrates the evolution of language. Words do not have fixed meanings. Dictionary meanings of words are not prescriptive, telling us how they should be used, but are merely descriptive, telling us how they are or have been used. As such, in any living language the meanings of words (and phrases) will change over time. This raises an awkward problem during the time of transition. Do we try to retain the meaning it has had in the past (which can make us come across as being hidebound) or do we go with the flow and accommodate the change, which can lead to charges that language is being debased. The struggle over language often has generational overtones since it is often young people who coin new words or new meanings to old words and us old-timers can easily slip into the cranky stereotype of opposing any and all changes. We risk becoming the language police, as in this clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look.

What is clear is that there does seem to be a point of no return beyond which it becomes pointless to fight a change and one should simply accept the new usage. I find myself on both sides of this issue depending on the particular case. ‘Cult’ may be one such word whose current meaning of a small doctrinaire group has become so widespread that it trumps the old one and there is no point trying to fight it.

Other cases are not so straightforward. For example, take the phrase ‘I couldn’t care less’. The plain meaning of this is clear, that there is some lower limit or floor to caring and that one has reached that point. It represents the absolute lowest amount that it is possible to care. But nowadays one commonly encounters people saying ‘I could care less’ to imply the same thing. (In a comment to yesterday’s post on clichĂ©s, Phledge offered it up as one phrase that should be eliminated.)

The new usage is gaining ground but I don’t like it. It does not make sense since if you could care less, that means that you have not reached the floor of caring and thus still do care somewhat. However, Stephen Pinker in his book The Language Instinct (p. 390) defends the new usage as also correct, saying that people who use it are doing so in a sarcastic way, as an abbreviated version of “As if I could care less” and he says that the way the sentence is inflected shows this. I am not sure that I buy his argument. When I hear people say it, it does not sound to me as if they are using it in a sarcastic manner, and the written form does not allow for inflection clues anyway, unless one resorts to emoticons, which I personally avoid.

But as with many evolutions of words and phrases, they often end up with meanings that have lost the tether to their anchor and have become free-floating symbols with new meanings. For example, the phrase ‘tow the line’ is commonly used instead of the original ‘toe the line’ even though the imagery invoked is quite different and only the latter image is consistent with the intended meaning.

The same is true for the label ‘Uncle Tom’ which is now seen as a deeply insulting term applied to black people who are perceived as acting ingratiatingly and subserviently to white people. This puzzled me for a long time. While reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I kept waiting for the title character to do something appalling that would merit the opprobrium that is currently heaped on him but it never came. In fact, he is such a dignified, courageous, and noble person that to be called an ‘Uncle Tom’ should be regarded as a compliment not an insult. So how did this monstrous injustice arise?

It was James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (2007) that explained to me how this distortion came about. Apparently the period 1890-1940, after the civil war and reconstruction, was known as ‘the nadir of American race relations’, during which

African Americans were put back into second class citizenship. During this time, white Americans, North and South joined hands to restrict black civil and economic rights… Theatrical productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin played throughout the nadir, but since the novel’s indictment of slavery was no longer congenial to an increasingly racist white society, rewrites changed Uncle Tom from a martyr who gave his life to protect his people into a sentimental dope who was loyal to kindly white masters. (p. 161, 164)

I suspect that it is now too late to rescue Uncle Tom from the ignominy that is unfairly associated with it.

‘I could care less’ may also have reached that tipping point for acceptance and has become synonymous with ‘I couldn’t care less’, even though the plain meaning of the words imply opposite things. If that is the case, I could care less.


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  1. 1

    A friend and I had a rather tedious and verbose debate (showing we’re both unrepentant pedants, I suppose) over whether linguistic evolution should be accepted in the case of “begs the question”. My contention is that for those who are aware of the original meaning, the new meaning can be off-putting at best, and momentarily confusing at worst; that for those who are unaware of the original meaning, its usage is just baffling; and therefore, the phrase should be avoided entirely. If you mean to refer to the fallacy of affirming the consequent, either say so directly, or if speaking to a lay audience use the phrase “circular argument” and then explain exactly what you mean by that. If you mean that it prompts us to ask a new question, say “Raises the question” or “Demands the question” or “Poses the question” or “Begs for us to pose the question”.

    My friend contends that a) all of those alternatives to the modern meaning either fail to convey quite the same idea or are awkward-sounding, and that b) nobody has ever actually been confused for more than an instant by the modern usage, and so therefore the modern usage should be embraced. Blargh, no! heh :)

  2. 2

    Using “beg the question” to mean “raise the question” really bothers me, though it’s becoming increasingly clear that that battle has already been lost.

  3. 3

    I have an excerpt from a book that uses “begs the question” to mean “raises the question”, and then later in that same paragraph actually begs the same question. (In fairness, they were doing the latter intentionally so as to show in the subsequent paragraph how that was not really an answer at all) I keep meaning to transcribe it for my friend, I think we’ll both get a good chuckle over it.

  4. 4
    Derek Czajka

    I always interpret “I could care less” as the result of people trying to avoid that much maligned, but incredibly old feature of English and of many other languages, double negatives. After all, the phrase “I could care less,” as interpreted at face value, is not likely to occur very often. You could say something like, “Well, I suppose I could care less, but you know .." Since this kind of sentence likely occurs far less frequently than the negative version, people re-interpret "care Less" as carrying negation. And because of the influence of the same elite grammarians who declared that because it has never been possible to split a Latin infinitive, the fact that English speakers can do it is an abomination and must be hidden, people don't like to have multiple negatives occurring in a sentence. So away goes the negation of the verb.

    If you don't believe this is possible, consider the fact that the sentences "I didn't get jack shi" and "I got jack shit" will usually be interpreted the same way. My guess is that the negative version of the sentence came first. The notion is that maybe, possibly, I could have gotten "jack shit," but I didn't even get that. But again, because the positive version of the sentence occurs far less often than the negative (and indeed, I'm having difficulty even imagining just what the hell the positive version might mean), "jack shit" has been reinterpreted to mean "nothing." And because negative concord has been erased from many English dialects, the negation of the verb must go.

    Also, it's worth mentioning that when someone says either "I couldn't care less" or "I could care less," they are usually pretty adamant about not caring, it's probably true to say that they really could care less.

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    I took the liberty of making a minor edit to your comment. The entire comment after the word ‘could’ had become bolded and so I corrected it. If your intentions were different, please let me know.

  6. 6
    Derek Czajka

    Thanks. I noticed the problem, but couldn’t figure out how to edit my comment, so just gave up. It’s probably obvious to a sighted user, but my screen reading software was not showing an edit button or link.

  7. 7

    The usage of “literally” to mean “figuratively” is the corruption that I find most egregious.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    You can preview the comment and make changes but once you hit the submit button, you are stuck with it. But you can always let me know and I will make the correction.

  9. 9

    A lot of these usages are fine in speech, where intonations and emphasis are apparent.
    With postings like this, and all the other non-verbal means we often lose that key part that clarifies whether something is sarcastic or not, for example, or sometimes the spoken context may be omitted for brevity and the nuance becomes lost.

    Weren’t we all taught, at a pretty early age, that double negatives are a no-no, yet many adults continue to use them…
    IIRC, using those and similar terms in compostions back when would have earned an F.

  10. 10

    “Refute” to mean “deny” ALWAYS gets my goat (and there’s another one..).

  11. 11

    A lot of the things that people are taught at school are “a no-no” are actually just fine. There are an awful lot of made-up rules out there (like no double negatives, and not splitting infinitives, and avoiding the passive, and…).

  12. 12

    Good post Mano. I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding the word “niggardly” given its similarity to the offensive epithet.


    Back in the Eighties, my high school Latin teacher used to like to play around with the word “gay” in a kind of pseudo-naive way for laughs and giggles from the class (he used to also regularly allude to his beer [drinking] as “Pepsi”). He would also, once a semester, regale us with his rendition of Frankie and Johnny.

  13. 13
    Shawn Smith

    Something that I’ve been hearing more and more lately is using “I” when it is part of a compound predicate. I.e. “Mom made dinner for my brother and I.” NO, NO, NO, NO, and DOUBLE NO!!!!!

    I attribute it to kids always getting getting corrected when they would say, “Me and jake went to the park yesterday.” And now they just think, “never say ‘me and …’ but always say ‘… and I.’”

    Of course, there’s the “where’re you at?”, made to sound like “where you at?” Because “Where are you?” is just too damn hard, I guess.

    And yes, I realize that I’ve already lost those two battles.

  14. 14
    'Tis Himself

    “Slim chance” and “fat chance” both mean almost no chance at all.

  15. 15
    'Tis Himself

    My pet peeve with evolving language is misuse of “unique”. Unique means one of a kind, not rare or unusual. Something can’t be uniquer than something else. Something can be possibly unique, probably unique, certainly unique and even not at all unique. But it can’t be very unique.

  16. 16

    Are you speaking to I?

  17. 17
    Jared A

    I can see why you wouldn’t want to use the historical meaning of ‘cult’. I learned it from my history classes, and it is still used as a technical term quite a bit in that field (I think – I guess it’s possible I’ve only read out of date material…) You can probably make similar usage out of the word ‘culture’ if you pay close attention to the syntax.

    But it’s important to at least understand the historical meaning because otherwise you are going to misinterpret so much that you read about history. You will not understand the meaning of terms like “cult figure”, “cult practice”, “mystery cult”, “cargo cult”, “imperial cult”, “Cult of ____”, and so on. So often people misread these phrases to mean that it’s a splinter practice or somehow stranger or more fanatical than the norm.

    So, for an (imaginary) example, if someone is arguing that early Christianity was a mystery cult, they are not being pejorative. They are simply making a taxonomic description of the types of rituals and practices that typified the group.

  18. 18

    Is it possible to ‘re-calibrate’ something? I was once told that the ‘re’ prefix was redundant. Thinking he was probably correct, I childishly called him dundant.

  19. 19

    This one gets to me, too, and I agree that it’s an obvious hyper-correction. It’s not enough to simply tell someone to use “XXX and I” instead of “Me and XXX.” You should make sure he understands why one is correct and the other is not.

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