I get a little bothered when people misuse phrases. It happens all the time, the subtle shifts in language that are caused by constant improper use of words. I get that. Linguistic drift is a fact of history, it’s how languages evolve, how dialects work, and why slang is such an important factor in determining audience when you’re writing or speaking. I respect linguistic drift.
However, I get even more bothered when people use phraseology or terminology in wilful ignorance, improperly. Like misspelling words on purpose for no other reason than impact or memorability, adding a Y here or an X there to make something pop out. I know why it’s done, from an intentional marketing perspective. I just hate when people do it to look cool.
But how much effort is the average person expected to expend on understanding etymology, phraseology or lexicography?
It’s deeper than slang. How often do we hear phrases like “this is the best thing since sliced bread” and think nothing of them?
Or, “turn the other cheek” and think it means submitting to bad the behaviour of others?
So much of what comes out of our mouths does so without the consideration of original meaning.
It’s frightening to think that even semantically unimportant phrases, which have so much communal meaning, have drifted so far from their original intent or meaning.
Sliced bread didn’t sell at all when it was introduced – it was more expensive than unsliced bread. No one wanted to pay a surcharge for labour.Who would? Sliced bread was introduced in the midst of the depression. No one had money to spare. If you can slice your own bread, why expend a limited resource on convenience?
Calling something the best thing since sliced bread, in this light, might not be implying that it’s actually a key convenience, but an unwanted, ill-planned advancement. Who wants that?
Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be struck again. Think about the culture of the time this quote was made; insulting someone with a slap on the cheek was done with the back of the right hand, to the right cheek. Presenting the left cheek gives the aggressor two options: either use the left hand (a cultural taboo, as the left hand is unclean, which looks bad on the aggressor), or strike the left cheek with the palm of the right hand. At the time, striking someone’s left cheek, with the palm of your right hand, was a gesture of extreme respect and filial connection.
Turning the other cheek does not present an opportunity for aggression; it forces your aggressors to either look bad and break taboo, or to make you look very good by their next actions, whether they intend it or not. It’s a high-handed action, self-serving and highly calculated.
Still, look at the usage of both of these assertions; we misuse the phrases so often, without even considering an alternate meaning, that the alternate meaning might as well not even exist.
We add secondary, even tertiary definitions to dictionaries, diluting language by making these malapropisms official. Canonizing misuse because of cultural significance. It’s not always wrong – but it’s often done without any thought of where the drift happened, or more importantly why.
Like calling a person gay, implying a state of happiness rather than homosexuality.
Like saying using impact as a noun instead of a verb; “it will impact” versus “it will have an impact”.
Like so many people misusing their, there and they’re.
Business communication relies on shared meaning and clear implication. But we’re all so guilty not only of semantic disrespect, but poor lexicography, it’s a wonder we can stand conversation at all sometimes.
Buzzwords, people. Won’t somebody think about the buzzwords?
photo by aussiegal.