Usage Determines Texting

by Oct 9, 2009Exegesis6 comments

I grew up saying "gee" and having no idea that it was connected at any point to "Jesus."

I did nothing wrong.*

That’s because my usage community (other third-graders, I suppose) didn’t know it either. Usage determines meaning, not etymology. Just because a word came from a bad country doesn’t mean it carried all its suitcases with it.

Think of “decimate.” Notice the “deci-” prefix: it once meant, “To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times” (OED, sense 3).

But now no one means that when they use the word “decimate.” They mean “to destroy almost completely.”

Is everyone wrong? Do we need to insist that people use the word in its original sense? No, because usage, not etymology, determines meaning.

OMG and Usage

Recently a friend sent me this article to test me—would I compromise on my little usage-meaning mantra? The article discusses the texters’ ubiquitous “OMG.” It quotes one 15-year-old girl who says,

I think originally the term ‘Oh, my God’ was probably a really heavy term. To say that carried a lot of weight, but I think that over time if you say a word enough times it’ll lose its meaning. If you say your name enough times, then it will start sounding weird. And I think that kind of happened with the phrase ‘Oh, my God.’ I think that people started using it so much that it no longer carries any weight and it doesn’t mean what it used to.”

If it doesn’t mean what it used to, it’s fine under my philosophy, right? No, because usage has not erased the connection it has to God’s name. Everyone knows what the “G” stands for. Usage has only led people to do just what the third commandment is forbidding, using God’s name with no weight.

The G in OMG could lose its connection to “God,” but its connection is so transparent that I doubt it will happen. If it did, however, and all it meant to everyone was "Wow!" then Christians could use it with no compunction.

What if I were able to prove that "OK" started as a Greek curse, "Ο κύριος" (O kurios, “O Lord!”)? Literally no one in the entire English-speaking world is aware of this fact until I discover it. Should I tell them? Is every speaker of English alive guilty of breaking the third commandment because “okay” used to hang around with a bad crowd?

Prescriptive lexicographers have created a real snafu.

*For what it’s worth, I don’t say “gee” anymore because adult society does (often) know where it came from. And I don’t say “snafu” around prescriptive lexicographers.

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  1. Luke Seelenbinder

    Good article.

    However, I present the case of “OMG,” taken to mean, “O My Goodness.” I have always been taught not to say, “O My Goodness,” because “goodness” can only be attributed to “God.” In connecting it to your argument, typical usage may not be with the implication of “God,” but nevertheless it is still there. Any logical, bible-informed thought process is necessitated to arrive at that conclusion, i.e., God is the only true goodness, therefore “goodness” can only refer truly to Him. So using your logic, am I correct in saying because the broad usage is not informed, it is still acceptable usage? In contrast to “O my God” which is obviously informed.

    In this case, your “Usage Determines Texting” should be interpreted, “as long as you don’t know, it’s ok?” Which if it is the case, we can have the discussion on “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” 🙂

    Just my $0.02 worth and I could help you blog hits by creating controversy. 😉

    Luke S.

  2. Duncan

    I sincerely hope that nobody ever misreads your explanation of “OK” as a serious suggestion and adds it to their list of (perhaps apocryphal) accounts of the phrase’s origin.

  3. Jeremiah

    Interesting stance. I had a similar debate among friends over the use of fetch referring to people:

    Sounds like you could spin that argument either way under your theory. Although it’s sort of the inverse: does a particular usage negate or overrule different meanings?

  4. Mark L Ward Jr

    To my church friend Luke: Glad to see you commenting again! One reason it’s nice to have only friends comment is that they’re never nasty, since they know you personally. I appreciate that a lot.

    I understand what you’re saying. And I think there could be a good reason not to say “Oh my goodness!” But that reason can’t be that “goodness” can only be attributed to God. Scripture itself attributes it to man in several places: “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness” (Rom 15:14). “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness…” (Gal 5:22). “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion” (Phm 14).

    If I avoid saying “Oh my goodness” it’s for the same reason I don’t say “gee.” Some people around me do view it as a “minced oath,” a euphemism for “Oh, my God!” It’s not worth confusing or offending people or appearing to break the third commandment.

    I wondered if someone might bring up ignorance of the law being no excuse. But I think my illustration about “OK” handles that objection. If OK came from a Greek curse using the Lord’s name, it has entirely lost that connection. There is no law of language saying that former connections must continue to exist. In fact, the law of language is that only current connections exist! That’s why the KJV’s “he that letteth will let” doesn’t make any sense today. Anyone can go to the OED and find out what “let” used to mean, but I’ll bet that the last time someone used “let” the way the KJV translators did in that verse was a long, long time ago.

  5. Mark L Ward Jr

    Duncan: I thought of that after the fact! =) Ah, well!

    To my old friend Jeremiah: If usage determines meaning, I’d say I hear “fetch” predicated of dogs and of people. But it’s more common to hear someone say that he himself will “fetch” something. It does seem like a condescending word to use when asking someone else to do it. “Jeremiah, can you fetch my gloves?”

    That’s what my internal usage computer says. If I were on a dictionary’s usage panel, I’d probably try to get that info to my readers.

    Usage panels who work for dictionary companies can be wrong, but more than likely they’ve been listening to regular English without the unfortunate earmuffs of a bad linguistic method. They recognize that the sounds making up the word “fetch” could someday mean what we now use the sounds making up the word “bagpipes” to communicate. “Boy those Scottish fetchers sure do grate on your ears after a while!” Words—except onomatopoetic ones—don’t have any intrinsic connection to their referents.

    I recommend Sidney Landau’s book “Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography.” It’s a pretty big book that I’ve only done some deep dipping in, but I’ve read his linguistic discussions.


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