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A Word, Please: How misuse becomes evolution

August 11, 2012|By June Casagrande

Once upon a time there was a word that meant “a male or female child.” One day, people started using it wrong.

For some reason, they started using it to mean only a female child. Suddenly, a term that had long included males meant “definitely not male.”

We can imagine the fallout. Surely some people were misunderstood. Surely others decried this change as imprecision in the language. Still others likely saw it as part of a disturbing trend — a dumbing down of the entire language.

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No one listened. And that’s how we got the word “girl” as we know it today.

Once upon another time, there was a word called “thou.” I don’t need to tell you how this story ends, though I would like to mention its arc. “Thou” gave way to “you” through a slow process that began as outright misuse, likely causing some confusion for a while before it was eventually replaced by “you.”

This is where words come from. They evolve slowly, often through misuse. Things can get a little chaotic for a while, but never as much as people fear. That’s because there’s a self-policing mechanism built right into our language: the need to be understood.

If, back in the day, the people using “girl” in the new sense were having problems being understood, they would have retreated from the newer meaning.

There are two kinds of people who condemn language’s natural process of change: people who don’t understand it and people who like to take advantage of the people who don’t understand it.

James Kilpatrick was a member of the latter group. The longtime columnist who died in 2010 had for years penned columns raging about crimes against the language. For example, in a 1979 column, Kilpatrick goes on a rant about lax uses of the word “hopefully.” In it, he chastises fellow columnist William Safire for being too liberal on the matter.

Safire, a conservative in politics and language, had argued that there’s no reason to object to the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. Everyone, he said, understands what you mean when you say, “Hopefully we’ll have nice weather tomorrow.”

Kilpatrick was appalled.

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