Drowning in a tide of effluvia

I was lying in bed thinking about all sorts really. Some thoughts were connected with programming, new ideas, introspection and dwelling on the week I’ve just had – not a particularly good one as it happens and then I started thinking about the English language and how it changes.

JRR Tolkien made the study of languages his life’s work. I think he knew about 19 languages and, of course, he created several new ones himself: Quenya and Sindarin being the most well-developed. He also wrote a few books that gained some recognition but some of these were off-shoots, a mythology creating a history, and therefore reasons, to explain the growth and change in his invented languages.

Language changes all the time and it’s impossible, and most would argue un-healthy, for a language not to change and evolve. The languages we speak are not perfect. They don’t always capture precisely the emotions we feel at a particular instant or what we wish or desire. Our interaction with the world around us and with each other is complex because as humans we are complex. We like to understand and make sense of things. Or at least I do!

English is one of the most popular languages on the planet, first spread by the British in their heavy-handed attempt at world domination, and then in the many resulting consequent waves. Curiously, though there is, or was, great diversity in the pronunciation of English within the United Kingdom. There has never been a defined or correct way to say a word. Therefore we have words such as ‘READ’, that can read one way, or taken as read. We have words like ‘DOES’, female deer but also a verb: he does go on a bit doesn’t he? Now, that English is a global language the pace of change and the range of influences on the language are vast.

Words come and go. They come into fashion or their meanings change. Sometimes for the better. To be described as sophisticated is now rather a compliment, whereas originally it meant you were un-trustworthy, not straight-forward. Another such word is funky. She’s funky, that’s funky! Sounds cool eh! Except that funky originally meant something that smelt bad. Sick, seems to be going through such a change although for me sick is another word for vomit and to be sick is to be ill.

There are other words that are similarly changing and I’m thinking here primarily about business language. Leverage is one such word. Growing up one applied leverage in order to move something. Within the banking sector that’s still the implied meaning. We need to apply leverage. But there is growing trend to see the word ‘use’ being replaced with ‘leverage’ and that doesn’t make sense to me. Why discard a perfectly nice word for some big clumsy lever of a thing? If you are going to use something then use it! Don’t leverage it! That’s a very specific meaning but sadly I think I now sound like an old pedant moaning about change.

Another word with a specific meaning that is now changing is impact, and the various ugly abuses that result from the over-use or over-leverage of it. The Meteor Crater in Arizona is the result of an impact. A rock from space hit the Earth and the result of that impact can still be seen today. A negative impact is an oxymoron. Quite often with some words I’m able to make a swift mental substitution, when I hear leverage I replace it with use, ‘impacts’  is replaced with ‘affects’ but I sometimes struggle when I hear negative impact. Can I use unfortunate consequences, bad luck or shall I just batter the person who has uttered this banality with a heavy club therefore demonstrating forcibly the true meaning of the word impact! A negative impact is when I don’t hit you thereby doing nothing!

Unfortunately, there are many such examples and I don’t think there is much that can be done to stop this rising tide of effluvia. I’m sure there are one or two other like-minded people out there who see and hear these words and cringe just as much as I do but there are others who seem to quite cheerfully use them without much regard for what they are actually saying.

Why get so worked up about this? Well, it shows a certain lack of imagination, it shows a certain dimness. For me the word impact has gained popularity for the same reasons as awesome. It’s a bigger, more impressive sounding word to use in a marketing presentation. We want this fruit juice to make a big impact! Good for you! I hope it doesn’t leave a hole in my body.

But now everyone is out making an impact with the result that the meaning of impact is now somewhat lessened. Impact should be used to describe the immense contributions of Einstein or Shakespeare, now it carries all the awe-inspiring grandeur of an angry drunk kicking a dustbin outside his ex-girlfriend’s house at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night.

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