The Mutation of Language

Language mutates, get used to it. You can stop reading now if you want - that's the TLDR summary. Wait, back up. "TLDR?" That acronym is a mutation of Internet English and a product of our excessively information-rich current environment that means "Too Long: Didn't Read." Language is itself a form of information that's hard to keep up with.

In 2008, Toronto's then Mayor Rob Ford referred to a group of people he called "Orientals." (Let's set aside the mildly racist nature of the comments and just look at that one word.) This was the only time I ever felt the slightest sympathy for Rob Ford: we were roughly the same age, and when we were kids, "Oriental" was an acceptable term for people of Asian descent. It had stopped being acceptable something like a decade prior to Ford's opening his mouth and inserting his foot, but I understood the source of his poor choice. Of course, as a politician, he has to pay more attention to words and their use than anyone else ... but he never did. Open mouth, insert foot was pretty much his S.O.P. ("Standard Operating Procedure").

The meaning of words and phrases changes as time passes. The language seems stable when you're 20, because it means now what it meant when you first learned it. And those few changes that have happened in the last ten years - well, they make sense and are easily absorbed. But the view changes as you get older.

When I was young, I learned an expression: "I wouldn't set foot in that place." This expression already looks wrong to 20-year-olds, because it's mutated into "I wouldn't step foot in that place." My guess is that someone couldn't remember the expression, although they knew approximately what it sounded like. Your "foot" is a thing you "step" with, right? That must be it. And now it is it. I recently watched the first episode of "The Alienist" (2018) on Netflix: the series claims to be set in New York in 1896. Someone used the expression "step foot," which made me cringe because there's no way anyone would have used that expression in 1896, as it didn't even exist. But this is a modern writer writing for a modern audience: they're favouring modern language over fidelity to period language.

A few days ago, I read an article on the tech site "Engadget." The opening sentence of the article was "China is implementing stricture measures in its bid to keep kids away from addictive digital content." I believe the word you were looking for was "stricter." At least in this case I have some hope that the author took a few seconds to look at a dictionary: the word "stricture" is correctly spelled, and is somewhat related to the idea they were trying to convey. Compounding the problem, "stricter" doesn't appear in a paper dictionary because it's a modified form of the word "strict." One of two things happen now: people shake their heads at this misuse of the language and move on, or they take on this new expression as proper English. If the latter happens, eventually the meaning of the words involved shifts slightly to compensate for the new context in which they're being used.

I find changes like "step foot" incredibly frustrating. We had a valid expression that made sense, and now we have this new expression that sounds jarringly wrong to those of us that grew up with the older version. But something I do enjoy about the growth of the language is the acquisition of new words. Many are practical: technology has created the need for an immense number of new words in a short period of time. A couple obvious examples are "Internet" and "webcam." But these aren't the ones that most entertain me. James D. Nicoll said "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." Of these borrowed words, my favourite is probably "Schadenfreude" (which we lifted from the German language). The shortest definition I've seen is "delight in another person's misfortune," and the truth is we needed a word to express that concept because it's otherwise too long a phrase to convey.

English is the lingua franca of the Internet. "Lingua franca" means, or meant, "common language," one that people who had little in common could all share and understand. It originated as a pidgin language for trading around the Mediterranean. This does relate to the Internet, because people from all over the world who want to speak to people whose native language isn't the same as theirs resort to English as the common language. English isn't an easy language to learn: it has more exceptions than rules. The Internet has a billion new English users trying to make themselves understood in a language that isn't their native tongue. When they see an expression - like "step foot" - put forward by a native English speaker, they'll take it as gospel. And so it multiplies ever faster. Because Google: the way people check if their use of the language is correct is to use a search engine. And that search engine will do everything in its power to find the expression provided, even if the expression is wrong, leading to an amazing confirmation bias loop.

Nicoll's point about the purity of the English language is, of course, a valid one. And it goes to my point about mutation of the language being inevitable. France has a governmental body, the Académie française, intended to defend the purity of their language (mostly against the incursion of English loan words), but at best such a body can only slow the mutation of the language, never stop it. For those of us that are older, we need to realize one thing: common usage wins. Every time. I despise the expression "step foot," but in a few years' time I may have to start using it or deal with people looking at me funny or even not understanding what I'm saying. Disagreeing with the change is irrelevant: people speaking the language must adjust, or realize they're using a former version of the language and they're going to require a translator.

My solution has been to try to avoid idiomatic language, because the idiom of my youth is less and less likely to be understood by the younger generations. I try to understand new expressions, but I also try to avoid using them because I remember when I was young, current slang always sounded wrong coming out of the mouths of the older generations - even on the rare occasions that they used the expression correctly.

As a closing argument, I'd like to encourage you to consider how your grandparents might feel about the version of English you speak (regardless if they're alive or dead, and let's assume they're picky about language). I'd guess they'd think it was an abomination. So which version of the language is right? The version that solidified in your grandparents' heads when they were growing up 50 to 100 years ago? Or the version you took on board 30, 40, or 50 years ago? Or is it the version in common use right now?

ADDENDUM: A week after writing this, I was watching a video about movies on YouTube and I heard the narrator use the expression "It stems to reason." I'm familiar with the similar-sounding expression "it stands to reason," and he was using it to mean the same thing. I went to Google and searched this new term (try it) and discovered that it appears on multiple sites. I don't know if this expression will replace the one I'm more familiar with, but it seems clear that confirmation bias on mis-heard expressions is remarkably effective.