A Sop for Prescriptivists, OR, Language Change Isn’t All Bad

Wit, today, is Frasier Crane. (Or so I recall from my sad days as a surreptitious sitcom watcher in the 1990s. I don’t know who wit is now.) Wit is the capacity of someone to dazzle others with incisive, off-the-cuff, humorous comments or banter.

Wit wasn’t always that, however—or at least wasn’t always only that. Wit, for a long time, was cognition, the faculty of thinking, the seat of consciousness. That’s why we have phrases like “half-wit,” “mother-wit,” and “at your wit’s end.” “Keeping your wits about you” doesn’t mean keeping a few jokes on hand for parties.

Nobody seems to mind that the archaic meaning of wit shows up in stock phrases but not when the word appears by itself. Wit changed pretty well wholesale without society taking much notice. (Or at least we’ve stopped noticing by now.)

But some changes in language get lucky. They really raise people’s ire. When these well-ired people say that a particular locution is wrong, there’s a moral deliciousness to the way they say “wrong.” It’s not an accidental wrong-turn kind of wrong to them, it’s philological murder.

Such is the case with the word awesome, the contemporary use of which provokes not mere nostalgia but, yes, ire among a certain class. Somebody has done something wrong—wrong!—to a word that used to be so awe-inspiring. Now it’s just cool. And that’s not cool!

But whom to be angry at? That’s a good question. Young people? No, the ne’er-do-wells who started using awesome this way (according to the venerable OED) are middle-aged now. And no one person or group has the power to change something like this, anyway, so it’s as hard to assign blame as it is to find a solution. Changing English isn’t like turning a big ship; it’s like adjusting the orbit of the globe. Nobody—or no human—has that power.

You can grant this truth and still feel some ire, I suppose. “The former days were just better than these… I can’t change awesome back, but I can at least be grumpy about it!”

So let me offer you a sop, something for your encouragement. Have you ever thought of this? We’re aware of the losses in language change but not the gains. Yes, we’ve lost hither and thither and whither (is anybody very sad?). We’ve lost the number distinction in you vs. ye (and it sounds kind of “truck-stop” to say you’ns). But we have gained some things. We don’t say anymore, “I build a house,” but “I’m building a house.” Now we can use those two phrases to distinguish the habitual from the present progressive, respectively. Many languages can’t communicate that difference so readily. Even our system of punctuation is a gain, one we probably don’t think of much. If you need any indication that this is the case, pull out your King James and try to make sense of the colons and semi-colons. All in all, English is a very supple tool for anyone willing to learn its intricacies.

So take courage. Something good may yet happen to English in your lifetime. Maybe you’ll wake up one year and say, “Kids these days! They sure do know how to elegantly and subtly distinguish the pluperfect from the iterative!”

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This post is a riff on comments made by the brilliant John McWhorter in The Story of Human Language. As such, some material is mine, some his (basically the wit example, and the point that we’re more aware of linguistic losses than gains).

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