Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Writing — Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, but Words Can Only Drive Me Crazy

There are better grammarians and more knowledgeable entomologists (or etymologists if we pay attention to detail). Certainly there are those who know more than I do about the use and evolution of the English language, even the version used in the USA. But as someone who has, I promise, written a few million words in the last 70 years, many of them in the proper order, I have thoughts about how words are used, misused, lost and invented.

As an overall philosophy I believe that language is, whether we like it or not, an evolving process.   Words die because of irrelevancy, redundancy or both. People simply stop using them.  We no longer use “amongst” or “whilst. Though some may mourn the loss, “among” and “while” do just fine.  We do not use the word “thither.”  And we do not use its bff, the word “yon.”  They went thither and yon. It’s sad.  They went everywhere together. There are wonderful, colorful words that had their days in the sun and have nearly disappeared.  “Aghast,” not to mention “flabbergasted” and such sounds of surprise or shock as, “gadzooks” and “egad.” However, in my increasingly brief exposure to what’s going on outside my small apartment, I’m seeing the return of “Yikes!” It brings me pleasure to come across it. “Hipsters” are back, it seems. And I sincerely hope “dude” is gone forever.

Every year the news media makes a big deal about which new words have been accepted by the authorities.  Lately, most are related to technology and or social media. Makes sense to me.  For example, the word, “text” is now also a verb.  The only time I really object to change is when a perfectly good word is misused and is confused with another perfectly good word with a different meaning.  “Notorious” and “famous” are different words. They are related.  If one is notorious he or she is probably also famous.  The reverse need not be true, and the words are not interchangeable.  The worst violation is the mistaken notion that “anxious” and “eager” mean the same thing, though continued misuse will make it so. It’s conceivable one might be “anxious” and “eager,” but they have separate, though possibly related, meanings. “Anxious” brings with it a little fear or nervousness, certainly anxiety.  I am eager to taste the pecan pie. It’s doubtful that I am secretly frightened of it. Though I probably should be.

I’ve also witnessed the emergence of referring to those too well acquainted with poverty as “the poors,” suggesting a group not unlike the earlier and usually hostile reference to “the gays.”  The gays found it funny and used it freely, just as they defanged “queer.”  Now I’m hearing about “the elderlies.” It’s amazing how many official groups to which I suddenly belong. “Here come the elderlies.”

Aside from misuse, I’m not frightened of the language evolving even though I am a bit anxious about my ability to keep up with the changes originating with eight-year-olds.  However I’d like to point out that evolution has not yet solved a recurring problem with English. 

The issue that bothers me is how we deal with gender, an existing problem made more important given the changes in social values and growing awareness of our grand diversity.  The “he,” “she,” “him,” and “her” pronouns are at once mechanically difficult for fluid prose and socially inappropriate.

Earlier in this post I wrote: “If one is notorious he or she is probably also famous.” Why must I write he or she or he/she or any such abomination in order to convey that a gender reference is not necessary to complete the thought?  Substituting either “they” or “it” is misleading.  You might think this is no big deal.  We’ve lived with this awkwardness for a long time. That’s true. Sort of.  At one point we simply used “he” when the gender was unknown. People of a certain gender finally and properly objected. Now we go through that ugly “she and/or he “ construction. 

As more of us are coming to understand some of Nature’s creatures are born with indeterminate gender. Some are presented with features of both.  It is also known that merely being born with one set of genetalia doesn’t mean the person’s brain is in full agreement. Also, increasingly it seems, there are people who wish not to be identified by the up-to-now commonly accepted definitions of gender. Some prefer not to have a gender identity at all. Given the gray areas of masculinity and femininity I wonder why we spend so much time trying to force everything into one gender basket or another anyway. In terms of gender being attached to words, it could be worse.  We could be writing in French.

I am reminded of the Yogi Berra story. When he was asked the gender of the streakers at a ball game, the famed catcher reputedly replied. “I don’t know. They wore bags over their heads.” The point is that unless you want a baby or identify a naked criminal with the highest level of specificity, what difference does it make?

To ameliorate the grammatical and social awkwardness, without disturbing much else, can’t we come up with one neutral, short word to replace both “him” and “her” and another for “he and she?”

It might be a little frustrating at first, but we can do a global “find and replace” command just as some of us have to do to eliminate one of the two spaces we type after a period.


Teri-on-the-sandbar said...

Whilst reading your post, it occurred to me that perhaps recycling could be applied to language. Like rather than "he or she," we just substitute the now unused yon. And for "him or her," we plug in thither. Makes for some dandy sentences and no words have to slink off into obscurity!
On another point, I rather like the British take on the "elderlies." They call them the "wrinklies." Not that you or I can relate.
Love you. Miss you.

MereOnceMoore said...

Whilst consulting the OED in regards to this problem I like the notion of using H.I.M. Which means "his or her imperial majesty" so we elevate everyone to the aristocracy and we solve all sorts of grammatical and social ills. No more poors and gender neutrality! By the way, I really miss the additional space after the period.

Ronald Tierney said...

Teri, I like the idea of "yon." As far as wrinklies, maybe. Could be the crotcheties. i am so easily annoyed by little things like dropping things,, but more accepting of major ones.

Ronald Tierney said...

Mere, We could use the word, "imp." And that extra space after the period? I still use it. Change isn't esy for the elderlies.