L:19 The Life and Death of words

toys letters pay play
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Funfact #1: The (possibly made up) etymology for the word “heck” is a portmanteau of Hell and F*ck. Funfact #2: The (also possibly made up) etymology for the word “shucks” is a portmanteau of Shit and F*ck. So, two minced oaths are actually double-strength curses. That’s so amusing to me.

I am a big language nerd. Everyone knows that. Queen of the WordNerds. VIP Member in the Grandiloquent Wordsmiths Association of the Universe. I likes words. Much to my gentleman associate’s chagrin (and sometimes to his amusement) I listen for word choices that people unconsciously make. I’m a total jerk when someone uses the words of their native language wrong. Not even things like their/there/they’re, because sometimes your brain (or auto-correct) foils your best intentions. But, sorry, things like “I could care less” doesn’t mean what you think it does, buttercup.

There are also phrases that people use all the time, and I’m certain that they’re completely unawares of the origins.

There’s an unfortunate connotation attached to the phrase “rule of thumb” that I can’t shake.  I know that the term (rightly or wrongly, under the bright lights of investigation) indicates the largest size of stick with which a man could beat his wife before it was seen as untoward. Yet, it’s accepted to mean a generally accepted rule, or a rule proven by repeated use. I still cringe a bit when I hear someone using it – especially someone who would be horrified if they realized the etymology of what they’ve said . I get that language evolves past it’s original meaning (somehow words even manage to flip meaning, like sick, for example). But the rule of thumb is conspicuous for how pervasive it is. It’s like when someone tries to defend the word retarded because the Oxford English Dictionary says that means delayed or slowed. Yes, but there is gravitas behind language and word choice that goes beyond what the mighty OED uses for a definition. And seriously, if you’re using that as your defense, you have to know that you’re kind of being a douchebag about it.

But I digress.

In the NY Times article (linked above), Jess Brinn is quoted as saying “We should all know what we’re saying and where the phrases we use come from”. Hellsyeah we should. Certainly, language evolves. Words become archaic, or fall out of trend, or come to mean something that they didn’t mean to begin with. Not all etymology can be tracked to Greek or Latin or Saxon or Germanic. But if you’re going to say something, you need to know what other people are hearing.

Early in my career, I was working with a developer who I deeply respected on an email forensics tool. He’s the guy who started me on the path to learning about Global English and Simple Language. We were localizing content into a few languages, one of which was French. He and I were reviewing content one day, and Robin told me that he had concerns about a certain word I was using. An entirely benign word in English, but in French (of the Canadian localization type), the translated word didn’t appear in the Province of Quebec acceptable language database (or whatever it was called). He said that it had distinctly… unsavoury… connotations, and perhaps I should find a synonym that wouldn’t tempt this unfortunate localization concern.

If communication is hamstrung with the limitations of word choice, what happens when you add context and tone and emojis and emoticons and memes and localization barriers?

This Lent, may my words pause long enough on my tongue that I’m sure they’re the best for my message. May I think before I speak, and may I have the good graces to listen to someone else’s intention as much as their word choice.

Extra Credit:

86 Great Examples of Portmanteau

7 Everyday Phrases with Sinister Origins

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