If we know only one thing about the English language we’re probably counting wrong. Most of us know four things about English. Professors of English know even more. There are some who know well enough to explain to the lay audience six things. Still, one is the minimum number of things people know about the English language, if they know anything at all. And I’d like to see you get out of that one.
But one thing we know about the English language is that words change meaning. They often do this without warning, despite the custom that they do not do this without warning. That is, that they do it with warning. I’d like to see me get out of this one myself.
There are neat ways that words do change meaning. The most exciting way they change is through a graphitic fission. One thrilling example of this was in 1378. A team lead by Geoffrey Chaucer subjected the word “deer” to high-participle bombardment in a gerund-lined chamber. It split the word “deer” from its earlier meaning of “anything that isn’t a bird or fish but that people are still willing to eat, as long as it isn’t a plant or shoe”. All that remained was “Bambi-like life-form”. We’re left without a word for the earlier meaning of deer. We make do with the circumlocution “eh, I don’t feel like that” while standing in front of the fridge.
Still, the experiment was worth it. There were flurries of syntax over southern England for years, accelerating the evolution of the language. That’s not to say this is always without its perils. A 1752 attempt to fragment the word “meat” — applied back then to animal flesh, the innards of peaches, or large enough trees — resulted in war with Spain. In fairness, that sort of thing happened a lot in those days. Spain didn’t even know about the war for two more years. They just thought the English were being all snippy, again.
Another kind of word evolution is reverse mitosis. In this a word shoots out a cytoplasm-dissolving compound to envelop and absorb some other word’s definitions. The shorter words are better at this, wowing to surface tension. It might seem unfair to you that “run” has now taken over 80,954 distinct words and yet it doesn’t show any signs of breaking up. In fact, it is deeply unfair. There’s nothing we can do. But we aren’t expected to do anything either. That itself is a kind of relief.
And while this process can obliterate an old word, there’s no reason new words can’t join up. Any new conglomeration of letters can join the English language. The franchise fee is perhaps objectionably low. It hasn’t changed form its 1663 level of “five groat, a tuppence, and three cloves of onnyons”, which is obvious gibberish. A lost word can just re-form and try again. English is on like its fourth “gossip”, for example, and it’s not going to stop however hard we try.
Another bit of word evolution that’s a really hilarious freaking joke, guys, is protective camouflage. In this, we notice that a word means something. But if we actually meant that thing, whoever we called that would get angry and maybe slug us. So we use the word but get all arch and wry about it. This keeps other people from knowing whether they want to slug us or kiss us. The worst they’ll do is think we’re being witty. This frees up our time and saves us social anxiety. But it does mean that any word is at most three generations away from meaning the opposite of what it now means.
An awareness of this gives writers exciting new chances, though. Sentences are made up of words, I think you’ll agree. If you won’t then go ahead and make your argument. It won’t work, because every word in your argument will mutate to every possible meaning. I just have to look back at the right time and your literal words will mean what I want them to, so I win.
But the opportunity for writers. It’s hard finding the right words and stringing them along the right way. But it’s also unnecessary. Write absolutely anything and, someday, it’ll be what you wanted it to be. This should make all writers’ lives easier. It does not.