COLM O'REGAN: Words find a speedy new meaning every day; but what does that mean for us?

Words find themselves with new meanings all the time, but it’s the speed with which they are changing that Colm O’Regan has concerns with this week.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master —that’s all.”

This is from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. But it could have been in response to something said in the White House this week. It was written 146 years ago and since we’re not completely gone to hell in a hand-cart since (debatable), does that mean everything’s going to be ok?

But Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and logician and he was saying that any term can have any meaning as long as it keeps that meaning all the way through. So if you want say red means blue, you can’t just sneak its new meaning in in one of Trump’s minions’ press appearances. You have to state it openly up front and be consistent all the way through.

People, in power and out, have been using words whatever way they want for years — it’s a perfectly privet-hedge tradition. Words also organically acquire new meanings, often wildly different to the original, particularly in slang.

When people of a certain age say the room would do with new curtains to jizz it up a little, half the audience nod approvingly, indicating that that’s what is needed. Meanwhile, younger people present stifle a laugh and pray that they’ll never have to explain the alternative meaning.

But something feels different now about the way words acquire their new meaning. Maybe it’s the speed.

One of the words that’s going to acquire more and more of a negative connotation in the next while is fast. Fast food already conjures up images of fights and parental neglect. Soon the term ‘fast fashion’ will sound like “I support killing pandas to make this scarf ”. Because you’re covering the planet in cheap tops that went all weird in the wash.

What about fast words? Are words being invented, acquiring new meaning and losing old meaning faster than ever before?

‘Literally’ is almost a lost cause. One dictionary has already given in and said it can mean the opposite of what it actually means. I literally died when I heard the news.

I fear the same could happen to ‘specific’. It’s ironic that a word which means clearly defined or identified should be mispronounced. (I hope it’s irony because it would be ironic if I was misusing the word irony wrong in a rant about the meaning of words.) But increasingly now, people are being ‘pacific’, speaking ‘pacifically’. All of this pacification is making me angry.

The problem is not mispronunciation. It’s the crossover of spoken and written language online means that eventually someone is going to write ‘pacific’ when they mean ‘specific’. No-one will correct them and, like the first weed on the new patio that grew over the long weekend, it will escape the Grammar-zone. Pretty soon we’re going to have Japanese knotweed growing over the language.

And ‘pacific’ will mean ‘specific’. The Pacific ocean, the largest body of water in the world, and a very unspecific thing, will need to go find a new word. Will it be necessary to date every written word we write, just so its then meaning is understood?

Words appear and disappear all the time. Who says ‘trendy’ or ‘with it’ or ‘peace out, dude’ or ‘gnarly’ now? They might as well be wearing a monocle and top hat and bragging about “bagging a splendid curlew on the hunt last week”.

But I worry that with this natural fluidity, couple with fast words, and a lot of “bad hombres” happy to exploit that in the world of post-truth and alternative facts, things could get dodgy. And by dodgy I mean the current (11/02/2017), widely understood meaning of dodgy.


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