WordsWed, 28th Feb '18, 1:05 am::

When it comes to language and word usage, I am what is often called, a descriptivist instead of a prescriptivist. Words and their meanings evolve over time and arguing that a word or phrase should mean today exactly what it meant years or centuries ago is futile. When it comes to grammar though, I am more of a prescriptivist, though not strictly. The point of writing is to communicate your thoughts and ideas clearly to the reader. As long as the words or phrases used by a writer convey the indented meaning clearly to the reader, there is no point in being pedantic about the etymological origin. However, using non-standard grammar, especially in written form, could confuse the reader so it is best to use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Let me explain with examples. It used to be that the word 'literally' meant 'in the strictest sense or manner'. However, overuse of the word in the past decade has now rendered it to mean 'figuratively'. Nobody literally dies when they run into a celebrity and then post about it on social media. They mean 'figuratively'. I am ok with this, prescriptivists aren't. The word 'computer' used to refer to women who performed mathematical operations manually on paper; now it means the device you are reading this text on.

But why should we care about this? Because there are many more words whose meanings are changing before our eyes and people are fighting all over the world to keep or revert these changes. Political and social disagreements very often boil down to arguing over the intended meaning of words. New words and phrases pop up every day and people get used to them. What was called yellow journalism in the 19th century is now called 'fake news' and 'click-bait'. The word 'organic' has been around for centuries but only recently has it been used to refer to foods cultivated without the use of chemical additives or artificial pesticides.

There is disagreement in word usage in almost every hot-button political issue. The disagreement about the word 'marriage' is pretty commonplace. Should 'marriage' mean a socially and/or legally recognized union between a man and a woman or should it mean between any two adults, regardless of gender? Some argue that 'marriage' should only refer to the union between a man and a woman and if two men or two women want the same union, it should be called 'civil union' instead, since the traditional definition of marriage didn't include same-gendered couples. If a 'civil union' works in the exact same way as 'marriage' and offers the same rights and legal claims, then why not just use or refine the word 'marriage'? The word 'dinner' used to mean lunch and was eaten around 1pm but now we're perfectly ok with making dinner and movie plans that start at 8pm.

Another phrase in the news now is 'assault rifles'. In the strictest terms, an 'assault rifle' must be "capable of selective fire, have an intermediate-power cartridge, have ammunition that is supplied from a detachable box magazine, and have an effective range of at least 300 meters." The AR-15 gun used in the recent Parkland school shooting as well as the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando Nightclub, Sandy Hook, and Sutherland Springs Texas church, is technically not an assault rifle. So passing laws that specifically prohibit the sale or ban the possession of 'assault rifles' would not affect this specific gun or its variants. In this instance, people are trying to generalize the meaning of 'assault rifles' to include guns like AR-15. Generalization has happened many times in many disciplines and industries. Brand names become generic terms (e.g. Chapstick, Jacuzzi, Jet Ski), trademarks become verbs (Google this, Xerox that), and technical definitions get commercialized (e.g. real-time, cloud).

In the end, people will redefine, expand, and refine the meaning of words like they always have as long as others can understand them. Long ago, 'nice' used to mean silly, 'awful' meant awesome, and 'meat' meant any solid food including vegetables and fruits. If the definition and usage of these core words can change, then the redefinition of words like 'woke', 'salty', 'thirsty', 'lit', and 'basic' is just natural progression. Some of these will stick and become part of the vernacular, some will return to their original meaning, and some will continue to change.

I choose to accept these changes because they tell the story of our time.

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