I Love Language


This might seem obvious, since I’m a writer and all, but I love language.  I love the structure, the history, the shades of meaning, and the infinitely complex ability to create ideas and stories from disparate words.

I’ve always loved story, for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until high school that I remember becoming fascinated by language itself.  I started taking Spanish, and seriously learning about another language.  This was also the period when my sister would read our Encyclopediatic Oxford English Dictionary, sometimes out loud.  Yes, you read that right, my sister read the dictionary.  I was also taking my first real literature classes.  Prior to this English class (or Language Arts in some schools) was about spelling, parts of speech, developing vocabulary, and the ability to read and comprehend texts.

These three things combined to open my eyes to the complexity of language, and I saw the first glimmers of complexity and contradiction within it.  How you translated a word in Spanish depended on what country you were in, or the shade of meaning you wanter.  What a word meant could be different in England and the US.  Language was different when a text we were reading was very old.  I was still grappling with the language differences between Lansing, Michigan and Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Then we moved to Gastonia, North Carolina, and the language differences were even more pronounced.  Fayetteville is not as southern as the rest of the South because it has a military base and thus a lot of transplants.

My high school creative writing teacher kept my love of language building as I took her course each year starting as a sophomore and then had her for senior English as well.  I learned about Shakespeare, villanelles, and how to write a proper hook in a novel.

Then I went off to college.  I registered for an etymology course my first semester because my sister had enjoyed taking it and told me a lot of fascinating things.  This didn’t work out as planned (who holds a once a week, three-hour long course in a non-air-conditioned building with no break?) and I ended up dropping the course after one long boring session.  I came back to language in college when I took a course on the history of the English language.

The instructor was young and dynamic (he was on notice on the Colbert Report for a lot of years).  The subject matter was interesting and ever evolving.  And I learned that I am a descriptive grammarist.  I was hooked.  I read extra books outside of class about etymologies and the history of words.  I took another class with him the next year called Modern English.  It was awesome.  Except for missing the midterm due to norovirus and having to do a makeup the next week.  I finally learned what a gerund is and how to diagram a sentence (which, for the record, I never managed to do completely correctly by myself).

I fell in love with the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED) during those courses.  I still use it today.  (Thank you, to the university I work for who provide me with full library access and thus OED access.)  When I write historical pieces, I’ll look up what slang was in use at the time, and check the OED for usage in writing.  When I did my 2017 A to Z challenge as 30 one-word writing prompts, I provided the OED definitions alongside the post.  Sometimes I’ll just look up a word to read through its evolution over time.

I still look for books of compiled etymologies, and I still love the random little facts I know because I study the language of English and not just how to write in English.  One of my favorites by far, is geek.

Originally (1870s-1980s), a geek was a slang term for someone foolish or offensive.

Then (1920s-70s), a geek was a circus performer who bit the heads off chickens or other animals.  Seriously.

Then (1950s-present), it developed the meaning of a person who was obsessive about a particular thing (a Harry Potter geek for example), or someone particularly devoted to technology and computers.

Now, geek is used either as an insult for someone perceived as un-cool and too smart or dorky, or used to self-identify as really into a topic or generally into tech or other topics often referred to as nerdy.  And that bit hasn’t even made it fully into the OED yet.

And that’s just the noun form.  The verb has its own related history.

Originally (1930s-80s), to geek or geek out was to give up or lose one’s nerve.

Then (1940s-80s), it was used to describe the act of biting off heads of animals done by a geek the noun.

Then (1980s-90s), it meant to make someone nervous or excited.

And now (1990s-2000s), it’s typically used in the geek out form, and refers to when someone launches off on a topic (often technical, or fringe in some way) in a manner deemed inappropriate or excessive.  (This is what a Harry Potter geek does.  How inappropriate it is depends on the audience.)

One of the interesting things about the above (all of which comes curtesy of the online OED) is that the usages overlap.  This clearly shows that language changes over time, but that this change is inconsistent.

And that’s just one example of why I find language so fascinating.

Do you find language as fascinating as I do?  What’s your favorite thing about language?


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