Monday, November 17, 2008

meh

Some times I despair that the English language is shrinking. Words that I take for granted, often get blank stares from anyone under fifty. I often worry that if our vocabulary shrinks, how will people be able to express how they feel? If we only have one word for snow, how will we accurately communicate with each other. How will we understand each other?

I read once about a fifteenth century attempt to control passionate uprising in the populous by controlling vocabulary. This lead to one of the very first dictionaries (or what we call dictionaries now) which was published not as an attempt to preserve the language but to standardize and limit the vocabulary. By limiting the words that people used to express themselves, you could limit the amount of emotion they displayed and thus reduce political unrest. It's an older version of the Noam Chomsky theory: if you can't express yourself, then you can't have the emotion, or in this particular instance, you cannot pass it on to your neighbour. It's a very good theory and has many working examples throughout history (and especially the present day, though I'm afraid that if I give an example, I'll insult too many people).

This is why it gives me great joy to read about new words being welcomed into our language. Today, it appears that 'Meh' is now granted that distinction by being accepted into the choirs of The Collins English Dictionary.

I'm not a big fan of 'meh', but I have notice that it is on the increase. However, I understood it to be a statement in and of itself not a (what's the word? darn my short term memory loss) descriptive word. But, meh, what do I know about it?

I love to read the reactions of people who love 'proper English' (but never use it to it's full potential) and despise any interloper who attempts to hop into our vocabulary. But I think my favourite comment on this story is by Kee-lo who says:

"Meh" is a completley[sic] cromulant word that embiggins the English language

I couldn't have said it better myself.

5 comments:

Jen said...

You're forgetting that because there are so many ways in which people identify themselves, so many ways of being, there are also multiple ways to communicate with each other.

I don't know if I would say our language is shrinking because in saying that there is an assumption that language is concrete in some way. Language changes all the time, it's dynamic and flexible. People appropriate words, resist and reshape their meanings to suit the context.

I think, above all, language is negotiated in relations between people and through that, there is shared meaning.

Natalie Freed said...

It's a very good theory and has many working examples throughout history (and especially the present day, though I'm afraid that if I give an example, I'll insult too many people).

...I'd personally be very interested to hear an example.

Natalie Freed said...

Sorry meant to put the first paragraph in quotes there.

Beth said...

I learned the word 'mononymous' (as in a 'mononymous person = having one name = eg. Cher) the other day, and I thought it was a neat word. Learning it reminded me of those Reader's Digest sections that are all about guessing the meaning of rarely used words. I guess we should all read things like that a little more often, eh? My mom was an English teacher so I know what you mean...I sometimes use words just regularly that I think other people have no idea what they mean. Teacher's kid!

Josiane said...

Your post, this piece of news, and the reactions it elicited are all very interesting to the ethnolinguist that I am/used to be...