Monday, October 5, 2020

The Ever Changing Meaning of Words

This article by Roger Carlton, columnist for The Graham Star Newspaper. 

The definitive source on the meaning of words is the Oxford English Dictionary. The Philological Society of London called for a new dictionary in 1857. Don't feel bad. I had to look the word up and it means "the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationship of a language or languages." So, a group of philologists got together and decided to codify the entire English language in a single document. The project was estimated to take ten years.  

Twenty-five years later, the group that started the process decided to contract it out to the Oxford University Press and Professor A.H. Murray. The project was renamed the New English Dictionary. Consensus was reached that a 6400-page four volume work could complete the ten-year task documenting all words from 1150 AD to the date of publication. 

Five years later, these erudite wordsmiths had progressed only to the word "ant." The task was made difficult because existing words gained new meanings and new words were being created. To close the loop on history, Professor Murray died before the 10 volume 400,000-word masterpiece was completed in 1928. The 22,000-page Second Edition was published in 1989, weighing in at 150 pounds and 20 printed volumes. The amazing compilation of English words is currently being rewritten for the third time and has gone completely on-line as a subscription service.

You might be asking where this column is going. Here goes. One word from the thousands that make up our complex language might help explain a lot about the frightening tension we are experiencing in our society. That word is "tolerance." The word means to most of us that we have an ability to accept the existence of opinions or behaviors that we do not necessarily agree with. 

Well-meaning people are taught to tolerate behaviors that make them uncomfortable because we are a pluralistic society that "takes all kinds to make a village." We are taught to "turn the other cheek." The "melting pot" concept that made my grandparents learn English quickly has been replaced with the "salad bowl" notion that we should mix together but maintain our individualism.

So now, we well-meaning folks who believe in tolerance are being told by the tolerated that this is demeaning. Think about that for a minute. We have learned by and large to tolerate ideas like Black Lives Matter, alternate facts and fake news. Lack of leadership at all levels of government and business is tolerated by many. The Supreme Court keeps protecting the rights of minorities of all sorts and most of us accept their rulings. Media bombards us with images that would have appalled our parents.

The point is that the tolerated groups no longer just want to be tolerated. They don't even want to be accepted. Being tolerated or accepted means that someone is being nice to someone considered of lesser value. The tolerated want their different behaviors and beliefs to be the norm.
Perhaps we need a new word for the upheaval currently underway. Let's try "absorption." How much absorption of these unfamiliar behaviors can we handle, and what will our democracy look like when the great sponge we call America becomes unwilling to absorb any more? The election results should tell us a lot about the voters' willingness to continue to absorb.


Elephant's Child said...

Food for thought - but an uncomfortable digestion process.
Thank you.

Glenda Beall said...

I am not sure what the norm means, but I think those who are asking for equal rights and justice are simply asking for others to accept their differences and treat them with respect and the same justice everyone should have in this country.
EC thanks for your comment.