Writing Tips by Gary Speer

Tips for writers, musing about writing and life

Do words change their meaning? If so, how does meaning change?

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In my last post I made reference to the sad plight our language and our nation may be in if we permit politicians and others in prominence or leadership in the country ignore or arbitrarily change the meaning of our language. I don’t want you to think I mean language never, or never should, change the meaning of words and phrases.

The English language, as with all “living,” i.e., currently spoken, read, and/or written, languages is constantly changing. But that change only happens as people USE the language, try out changes in meaning or spelling or whatever, and then spread that change. Language meaning or usage does not change “overnight,” it changes over time.

For example, look at the word “Hoover.” During the early part of the 20th century, the manufacturing company that created and builds Hoover vacuum cleaners became so successful in Great Britain that the word “Hoover” became a British idiom for vacuum cleaners and for vacuuming, and even for doing something quickly and thoroughly. It is still an accepted expression in Britain to say something like: “Hoover the upstairs hallway, would you dear?” or “Wow. He really Hoovered that plate full of pasta didn’t he?”

(I have personally heard the term “Hoover” used this way as a noun or verb in the United States.)

Would anyone in Britain or the U.S., however, understand you if you were to use “Oreck” or “Electrolux” or “Eureka” or “Dyson,” etc., this way? Of course not.

Language has meaning. Words have meaning. That meaning may or may not change, but such change when it comes generally happens slowly as many speakers of the language accept or reject a particular change.

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