Usage Determines Meaning for the Middle-Aged

by Oct 22, 2014Culture, Linguistics6 comments

Usage Determines Meaning, and I’m going to illustrate it by putting myself down a little bit.

A close friend of mine heard me refer to someone else as “middle-aged” in such a way as to distinguish myself from that age group. I, I implied, was “young,” not “middle-aged.”

He replied, “No, you count as middle-aged, don’t you?”

I’m newly 34. Arguably still in my “early” 30s. Decidedly not middle-aged. “Shut up!,” I informed him. (I didn’t actually say that; clever retorts only occur to middle-aged people several minutes after they lose their usefulness. [I mean after the retort loses its usefulness, not the middle-aged person.])

My friend knew that I was 34, he wasn’t joking, and he still called me “middle-aged.” Now, Usage Determines Meaning—so is he allowed to mean whatever he wants by “middle-aged”? If he includes everyone from 30-80 in the “middle-aged” category—does his usage get to determine his meaning? Do I have no right to complain, I mean, me of all people?

Letting people say and mean whatever they wannoo—that’s what a lot of people think I mean when I sing the “Usage Determines Meaning” song. They are afraid that language will degrade into gibberish as people insist that ever more and more words mean what they say they mean—until we can neither understand the words they’re defending nor the words with which they defend those aforesaid words.

No, I mean’it sentarams make folstering nando grommets eleventy-one differimous morks!

That’s our future as English speakers if that nefarious Usage Determines Meaning crowd has its way: linguistic anarchy. (Men will finally have an excuse for not listening to their wives while working on important guy stuff, but that’s the only upside [for such men]. But they won’t be able to explain that excuse… So we’re back to square zero.)

Well, I’m not nefarious. And that’s not what I mean. A given person’s usage does not determine meaning. Well, not exactly. We can usually understand people even when they make mistakes like malapropisms. And even when they customarily make those mistakes—developing, as it were, their own idiosyncratic usage pattern (like someone who always says “effected” even when he means “affected,” or “re-pore” when he means “rapport”). But those people are still “wrong”—in a sense I get to define in my blog Terms of Service—because no single individual gets to determine what “proper” English is.

No, it’s the usage of the language community that determines meaning and decides, in the aggregate, on standards of propriety. There are many overlapping and not-so-overlapping language communities that speak English, and there are therefore differing standards of propriety that must sometimes be navigated by a given speaker. But the community standards that most concern you are probably not those of Singapore or Kenya, whose Englishes are noticeably different from my own, but those of the SAE community—speakers of Standard American English.

Standard American English is, basically, the only language community that has its act together well enough to have multiple, fully-appointed dictionaries. SAE speakers are the ones who dominate American lexicography, because they dominate American culture. No, that’s backwards. The people who dominate American culture—the way they speak, whatever it is, is SAE. And when those people say “middle-aged,” they typically mean people aged 45 to 65, give or take five years. I checked the New Oxford American Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster (for what it’s worth, the OED says that the British use “middle-aged” the same way). They all offer the same report: that’s what SAE speakers mean by it.

I’m certain that never in my life till today have I looked up “middle-aged” in a dictionary. I simply did in an informal, unselfconscious way what lexicographers do in a formal, methodologically rigorous way: I listened to and read speakers and writers of Standard American English. Dictionaries are only telling us what we would already know if we paid careful enough attention.

For the record, I corrected my friend, though his implication that I am getting old probably had more to do with that correction than any desire to ameliorate his language. And I want you to know that I sent him the entry from the dictionary to prove my point. Such behavior is not below an adherent to Usage Determines Meaning doctrines.

Real life might conceivably change. People may begin commonly living to age 200 (although I don’t think so). Then the meaning of “middle-aged” may morph, too. Or, for some unimagined reasons , “middle-aged” may come to mean something as yet unimagined. Stranger things have happened in language. But “Usage Determines Meaning” doesn’t mean my friend has the power to make changes happen in English by a slip of the brain.

Hey, maybe he’s middle-aged…

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  1. Jeremy Patterson

    An excellent post. In essence what you are saying is that, in arguing for usage determines meaning, one must not forget the other side of the coin, which is that meaning determines usage. And vice versa. Etc.

  2. Mark Ward

    Right: what the accredited speakers of SAE mean when they say something should determine my usage in situations in which I’m expected to speak SAE (or, to put it a little more selfishly, in situations in which SAE best furthers my purposes in communicating).

  3. Layton Talbert

    Your third paragraph below the picture reminds me of a line you may remember from (yes, I’m going to cite it again) Calvin and Hobbes. They’re discussing how nouns frequently morph into verbs–a phenomenon Calvin dubs “verbing” with the remark, “Verbing weirds language.” Hobbes replies something to the effect of, “Maybe one day we can make language a complete impediment to understanding.” Which brings me to your facetious sample sentence, which also reminded me of another great linguistic authority, outdoors humorist Pat McManus (hey, he was an English professor anyway). One of his stories introduced the word “flamph.” Say you’re trying to make your own mountain tent from a kit, but somehow it’s just not turning out quite right–stray flaps and tie downs in odd places, and a nondescript amorphous shape. Your neighbor asks you what it is. If you say it’s a mountain tent he’ll laugh himself silly. So you say, “It’s a flamph.” “A flamph? What’s a flamph?” “It’s kind of like a mountain tent, you know, for sleeping out in the mountains.” “Wow, I gotta get me a flamph.” Useful word.

    And you’re welcome for such an enlightening and corroborative comment.

  4. Mark Ward

    That’s great, Dr. Talbert.

    I read a little children’s book at the recommendation of a good friend called Frindle. It really was quite clever. A mischievous boy invents a new word for “pen”—frindle—and manages, sort of by accident, to make it popular in his school and then across the nation. It could happen. Some neologisms—not most, I’d wager to say—catch on.

  5. ledrummer

    If you are 34 then that is very near to being exactly “middle-aged”!

    Psalms 90:10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten;

  6. Mark Ward