In language, mob rules.

Salut, Writer Peeps!

Original photo by George Hodan

For those who forgot, and for new readers, Monday blogs are about writing and editing and books and reading and all things word related.

In my house, I force my kids to listen to me lecture we enjoy lively discussions about etymology, the history of words. I enjoy thinking about how each generation tweaks the English language to reflect its own cultural experiences. I especially like comparing the way my children perceive and use words with how I did at their ages.

When my teens like something, they call it swag. When I was a teen, swag was the fabric that hangs over the window. When I call League of Legends a “video” game, my kids tease me. To them, video games are simply games. It’s the other types of games that use a descriptor (eg, board games). My daddy used to hate it when his kids used the word gross. Gross, to him, was a math term, and he said I sounded ignorant when I used it as a descriptor (eg, Palmetto bugs are so gross!). He didn’t like grody any better, but by the eighties, he’d given up on trying to control teenage slang.

Writers, especially us AARP members, sometimes dig in and refuse to deviate from the English of our younger years. Lots of writers tell me, “I won’t dumb down my writing,” and “If we write the way some people talk, it will corrode the language.” That sounds all noble and whatnot, and if that’s your thing, more power to you. If you’re writing for a modern reader, though, you might want to pay attention to how language changes.

One writer asked, “So if a word is misused long enough, that misuse becomes the accepted definition, and that’s that? Mob rules?”

The answer is yes. Mob rules. That’s how language works.

Personally, I’m on a mission to get the word internet (lowercased) into common usage, because it seems stupid to keep capitalizing it. So I purposely break that rule of capitalization whenever I reference the world wide web. (See what I did there?)

Or we can stubbornly hold to the English we know is correct. Like this:

   God cwæþ to Abrahame: ‘Nim þinne sunu Isaac, and far to þæm dunum, and geoffra hine þær uppan dune.’
   Þa aras Abraham on Þære nihte, and ferde mid twæm cnapum to þæm dunum, and Isaac samod.  Hie ridon on assum.  Þa on þone þriddan dæg, þa hie þa dune gesawon, þa cwæþ Abraham to þæm twæm cnapum þus: ‘Andbidiaþ eow her mid þæm assum!’
   Isaac bær þone wudu to þære stowe, and Abraham bær his sweord and fyr.  Isaac þa ascode Abraham his fæder: ‘Fæder min, hwær is seo offrung?  Her is wudu.’  Se fæder cwæþ: ‘God foresceawaþ, min sunu, him self þa offrunge.’
   Þ a comon hie to þære stowe; and he þær weofod arærde on þa ealdan wisan. Þa band he his sunu, and his sweord ateah. þa he wolde þæt weorc beginnan, þa clipode Godes engel arodlice of heofonum: ‘Abraham!’  He andswarode sona.  Se engel him cwæþ to: ‘Ne acwele þu þæt cild!’
   Þa geseah Abraham ramm betwix þæm bremlum; and he ahof þone ramm to þære offrunge.

Don’t understand that? It’s written in perfectly correct Old English. Following is the same text, translated into more modern-sounding English.

   God said to Abraham: ‘Take your son Isaac, and go to the hills, and offer him there upon a hill.’
   Then Abraham arose in the night, and went with two servants to the hills, and Isaac as well.  They rode on asses.  Then on the third day, when they saw the hills, then Abraham said to the two servants thus: ‘Wait here with the asses!’
   Isaac carried the wood to the place, and Abraham carried his sword and fire.  Isaac then asked Abraham his father: ‘My father, where is the offering?  Here is wood.’  The father said: ‘God himself, my son, will provide the offering.’
   Then they came to the place, and he there raised an altar in the old manner.  Then he bound his son, and drew his sword.  When he was about to carry out [lit wished to begin] the deed, then God’s angel called quickly from heaven [lit heavens]: ‘Abraham!’  He answered at once.  The angel said to him: ‘Do not kill the child!’
   Then Abraham saw a ram amongst the brambles; and he raised up the ram as the offering.

We write for a lot of reasons. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy uses Middle English dialogue to represent language as it was in New York before she was born, along with what was (in the 1930s) modern English, to keep the reader engaged.

MN Stroh, author of the not-yet-released Rise of Betrayal, sprinkles elements of Middle English and Gaelic expressions throughout her historical literary novel. Her use of language is flawless, and it makes a huge difference, transforming the reader back to Ireland in 962 CE.

Or maybe you’re this person, who makes me smile.

The takeaway? Writing is art, and there is no wrong way to create art. Know your readers. Know the mood you’re trying to create. And go for it.

What do you think? Are there any words or expressions that you really hate? Anything you’re trying to get into common usage? Any English “rules” that you simply will never break? Or never follow? And did you see what I did there with the world wide web?


3 Comments on “In language, mob rules.

  1. Awe! That’s sweet of you to say about my writing, Kathy! Thank you! I did catch what you did there with the whole world wide web thing. It made me think of the old Veggie Tales episode where Larry is talking with Bob about email and asks Bob, “Aren’t ya wired? Online? Surfin’ the web? HTML, good buddy!

    All those expressions are pretty dated now too.

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