Usage Determines Texting
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?
*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.