Shifts in Word Usage


“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a habit” ~ Chicago saying, 1920s

This may be the basis for the more famous saying from James Bond, although I am not an expert.

Language history aside, however, there is a point here. Coincidences do happen, and we need some way to avoid being taken in with them. I often use the "3 times" rule for spotting possible patterns, which is why many of my Facebook posts have lists of 3 things. Longer lists usually are the result of my thinking up more points as I am writing them. And while we are on the subject, I have another such list.

I have noticed that there are things people have trouble describing. A common complaint is that there are no appropriate words. For example:
  1. There is a version of the song "Joy to the World" (by Chris Tomlin - isn't Google great?) with the phrase "Joy, unspeakable joy".
  2. People in love say that they can't describe what they feel.
  3. There is a rare emotion, where an overpowering sense of otherness and connectedness fills the world. I understand that Barbara Ehrenreich (apparently a famous atheist) recently wrote a book (Living with a Wild God) about this, but without a good term for it.

To me, there is a problem here. We (humans) invented languages. We made up the words. These aren't exactly unknown phenomena. So why didn't we make up the words we needed?

For #1, I can sort of see the answer. The emotion (joy) has a name; the difference here is a matter of degree. We normally use adjectives (like "extreme" or "very great") to indicate a high degree, so Chris Tomlin could have used those. Why didn't he? I don't know, but it's in a song, so maybe they had the wrong number of syllables. "Absolute" would have fit, but probably violates Christian theology. My guess is that "unspeakable" has been co-opted. Instead of meaning "cannot be expressed in words", here it just means "very great". The adjective has been weakened to make a point.

And there, I think, we find the broader answer. English does have words or these things. #2 is "love". That's a perfectly good word, and everyone (who speaks English) knows it. Why not just use that word? The answer, I think, is human ingenuity.

If I was in love with, for example, Gwendolyn, I could say "Gwendolyn, I love you". In a perfect world, she would understand this means that I think about her continually, she can often make me happy by her mere presence, and that, not surprisingly, I would like to spend as much time with her as possible, ideally the rest of my life. Collective experience tells us that the feeling is not permanent, but it does feel like it is at the time, and typically lasts long enough to set up a real permanent bond.

Sadly, however, we don't live in a perfect world. Someone probably said that to her before, and odds are that he didn't feel that way. Instead, he probably just lusted for her and said it because he hoped it would convince to her mate with him. The first man who used the word like that was a manipulative liar: He said something false that he intended her to believe was true in order to trick her into acting in a way she otherwise wouldn't. So was the second man. But I'm no sure that using the word that way is exactly dishonest now; it's more like the word has developed an additional meaning that partially obscures the original.

But only partially. It's not unknown for words to change their meaning entirely. For example, "want" used to mean "need", and "soon" used to mean "immediately". The general trend here is that we "lose" words if they mean something extreme, and people use them to emphasis something less extreme. Then someone makes up or finds a new word for the original meaning. I doubt that that's going to happen to "love", however, as the incentive to dishonesty is too strong. If a new word was developed, it would be co-opted immediately, meaning it would never be in common use with (only) its original meaning, and so there would be no reason to adopt it.

And then we come to #3. The word Barbara Ehrenreich was looking for was "holiness". Of course, she has a good reason not to use it. She is an atheist, or as much of one as you can be while acknowledging the existence of "a non-human agent or agents", and the word "holiness" is heavily associated with organized religion (read "Christianity"). Or at least I would guess that as her motivation; it's what I would have done in her place. She seems to use "otherness" instead, which I find ironic, given that that is the literal translation of "holiness".

She does have a point. Christianity uses that word in at least 2 ways. There is the Barbara Ehrenreich sense, describing the glimpses of God that sometimes show through the walls of the world. The logical conclusion is that the nature of God is similar, but perhaps far more so. And then there is the other sense, involving action and morality, and seen in the phrase "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44, etc.). This second sense has very little to do with the first, as it refers to actions instead of nature.

The confusion between the 2 uses of the term probably comes from 2 sources. The first is God, who, meeting both criteria, is described as "holy" rather indiscriminately. The idea the God is philosophically simple, in that He is not composed of parts, also leads people to resist drawing distinctions between His attributes. The second source of confusion is the Christian idea that, in people at least, holiness in the first (experiential) sense plays a major role in producing holiness in the second (moral) sense. The idea is that the experiential holiness sort of contaminates you, and the moral holiness is the visible result. Not everyone, of course, agrees with this. The debate goes back to Greek philosophy (or farther), and shows no signs of stopping soon. Personally, I suspect that explaining moral holiness as an infestation of experiential holiness is part of the truth, but only a part.

But all this is getting rather off topic. Going back to our word meanings, we see that "holiness" follows the same general trend. There is a word for something. The word is used in other cases, to evoke the original concept. In time, the word acquires additional associations and connotations. Eventually, the meaning of the word is so changed that it no longer describes the original concept effectively, leaving a subtle hole in the language. Then, when people do need to talk about the original concept, they are left floundering for the right term.

It happens with other words too. "Inconceivable" has shifted from "cannot be thought" to "impossible" or even "very unlikely", with "unbelievable" following. "Terrible" and "terrific" were once synonyms (as far as I know) meaning "terrifying", but are now a pair of unrelated opposites. "Glamour" comes from the Scottish "gramarye" meaning magic (or maybe from the Icelandic "glám-sýni" meaning illusion). When I was young, I was told that "right wing" and "left wing" referred to reactionaries and radicals, but now these terms are commonly used about quite centrist politicians. Over time we lose the ability to talk about extremes.

I don't know the overall effect of this. There is a theory that we can't think about what we don't have words for. A number of books draw on this idea (notably George Orwell's 1984), but they often take it a bit far. If we could only think of things we already had names for, there would never be a new idea. There is the Mad Philosopher in Captain Jenny and the Sea of Wonders, who spends his time thinking up names for things that don't exist, so that people can discover them. But reality doesn't work like that. Instead, the people who invent/discover things name them, often by accident (e.g. dark matter). The idea comes first, then the name.

Of course, that doesn't mean that language is irrelevant to thought. In fact, there are plenty of studies to show that it does matter. A famous example is the Guugu Yimithirr language, which doesn't have words for right and left. Instead, native speakers always use absolute directions (north, south, east, west), and they develop a very good sense of direction. Also, it's much easier for people to remember the difference between similar colours (e.g. red and orange) if they know the names for them.

How does this fit in with extremes? I'm not sure, but I sometimes suspect that people are losing the ability to tell apart a mild position they disagree with from an extreme one. As a result, entire spectrum get lumped together. People who oppose race-based affirmative action policies get lumped in with the KKK. People who want a federal minimum wage get lumped in with communists. Nominal Muslims get lumped in with ISIS. All this makes rational discussion and compromise difficult.

And then there's another thing that happens. Some concepts seem inherently hard to attach words to. There is the idea of seeking the good of the other, once called "charity", then called "love", and now often called "love" with a qualifier like "selfless" or, in some Christian circles, "agape". There is "terrible", as mentioned above, and the related "awful". And then there are "soon", "momentarily", "presently", and other similar words and phrases, which now all mean "in at short time" instead of "now". I expect that there are more as well.

What do all these words have in common? I don't know. Nor can I see who would benefit form this. But sometimes I wonder. Ian Fleming used the quotation at the top in James Bond, but only in an adapted form. His reads "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action."

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