The Words are Becoming Homogeneous, and it’s the Beginning of the End


I was first alerted to this phenomenon by a post on The Byronic Man‘s blog earlier this week, where he informed us that Google have expanded their definition of the word “literal” to also mean “for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” I was horrified. I did some further research and discovered that even our beloved Oxford English Dictionary has engaged in this travesty; according to them, literally can also mean metaphorically. That’s right people, the word “literally” can mean both “literally” and “not literally”.

My alarm bells started ringing. I wondered if this was an isolated example. It’s not. There are other words in circulation that have contrasting meanings. We’re aware of these words, they’re not new words, they’re not even new definitions, but have we ever realised the significance? I will come on to significance in a moment, but first some examples…

  • “To dust” something means both to cover it in dust, or to remove dust.
  • “To screen” means both to show something (like a film), or to hide something.
  • “Bound” means both fastened in one place, and heading off somewhere.
  • “Bolt” means both to fix firmly, and to rush away at speed.

The definitions for “Bound” and “Bolt” are in fact so similar to each other, that they could merge those two into one without any of us noticing, and we will then have one word to represent four meanings. Where will it end? I’ll tell you where it will end; in disaster. I’ve figured it out and it’s a conspiracy…

At the beginning of human-times (history isn’t my thing, so I just use my own descriptions), there were no words. I’m not sure when the very first word was, but over time the number of words grew and grew, and now the number of words are shrinking and shrinking. They are bringing two meanings into one word, and then getting rid of the now redundant words those meanings used to belong to. All the words and meanings are gradually merging. The words are becoming homogenous and it’s the beginning of the end.

Plotting room

I think this must be where it all happens

They’re trying to sneak it through quietly but I’m on to them. They have a fancy name for words with contradictory meanings; contronyms. Well I care not for their fancy words. They may use the fact that contronyms are not a new thing as some kinds of justification, but all that means is that they’ve been planning this for a long time, and I’m not buying it.

I’m asking you all to keep alert. Be aware of this movement to reduce the number of words. We can no longer tolerate the cramming of several meanings into one word. In order to monitor the situation, we will all have to spend time counting words in dictionaries, and comparing that number to earlier versions. This counting must be done manually, we can’t trust what it says on the dictionary, or any automated counting systems; they’re all in on it. I want to see spreadsheets and algorithms and beer from you all.

It’s fairly obvious that their purpose is to turn us all into subservient beings who will eventually be unable to express any objection to what they are doing, as we will no longer have the vocabulary to do so. They will combine and reduce and combine and reduce the words until there is only one word left, and I’m pretty sure that word will be “Yes”. We need to say “No” while we still can.

photo credit: alles-schlumpf via photopin cc
photo credit: John Loo via photopin cc

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82 responses to “The Words are Becoming Homogeneous, and it’s the Beginning of the End

  1. I do love that literally *literally* means “not literally”. Also, I was literally listening to this song as your post title popped up on my emails: “Beginning of the End”; “Waiting for the End”. Had to share, sorry :)

  2. Their r those of us hoo care about werds, and tho’se of us who doen’t. They’re will always b jerx who don’t sea the importance of the proper choice of ones vocabulary. They go thru life grunting and nodding to get what they want, while the select few of us take the thyme to pick the very best words to espress ourselfs.

  3. From Ye Olde Grammarian: YES Ain’t langridge wunnerful? But I’m worried about you, Vanessa! Everyone needs a tongue in order to speak, and I’m afraid you’re going to bite yours off before you can get it out of your cheek! (I’m going to share your post everywheres!)

  4. doubleplusungood!! We need MORE words – MORE I TELL YOU!

  5. Yes Vanessa. I mean No Vanessa. I mean whatever you say Vanessa. Lead and I will be bound to follow.

  6. I love your humor, but I share your frustration over the acceptability of literally now being used to mean metaphorically. If that’s not asinine, I don’t know what is. I think you should start a petition. I’d sign it. Literally. :)

  7. “When I use a word” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful voice “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    “The question is” said Alice “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    Lewis Carroll
    Through the Looking Glass

  8. This is fascinating, Vanessa. I feel confused. It feels like you can make a word be whatever you’d like it to be. Whatever is convenient!

  9. you are a very complicated girl–feisty and funny

  10. You use some words some days that has me having to use the thesaurus… damn I can;t even pronounce that word… I struggle with English as it is and now you tell me there is a conspiracy going on that I would not even be able to spot… I’m now confused if I say I’m going somewhere am I going or coming back??? Cause I normally go and then return…

  11. Lewis Carroll ( and others) were psychic? Murphy’s Law; it’s evidently real. They are bunkered in the Plotting Room even as we mumble madly (which ever definition is featured this weak…)

  12. I literally died laughing while reading this. ;-)

  13. That was one of the early reveals in 1984. Why do we need a “bad” when we can have an “ungood?” one character muses. Restrict the vocabulary and you restrict complex and nuanced thoughts.

    Fortunately, the dictionary is also being loaded up with new, fake words to fill in gaps. “Proactive,” for example, still makes me cringe.

  14. Eek! My head hurts with all these words that mean the opposite of what they mean as well, Vanessa.
    And, I think the first word was Eek! Meaning to say something without actually speaking.
    I’m now going to lie down in a darkened room…

    • When you say “darkened” room, do you mean “darkened” in its literal sense? And when I say “literal” sense I mean the unliteral version of literal, do you see? So which is it?…hello?…hello!!!…Where have you gone Tom?!

  15. Grunt. Unfortunately you have to hear the tone and inflection of my word to understand its meaning. Sometimes it means, “This is really funny”, and sometimes it means, “I would really like a taco”.

  16. I believe it was in England (I tread with caution here) where an establishment was in the possessive case. Example: Casey’s Bar. Someone decided to remove the apostrophe because it was the name had been around a long time and people were forgetting it anyway, so… I blew a gasket or something.
    Then I read an English Prof somewhere thought that spelling wasn’t that important because usually you can understand what the ‘writer’ is saying even though the spelling is bad. WHAT?
    Kill me now.
    Love this topic. Hope it gets Freshly Pressed or wot is it dey do in the blogs wold. :-D

  17. Oh, where will it end? The anthropologist in me finds the subject fascinating, but the writer cringes at the apparent devolution of the English language. Will anyone fifty years from now be able to read this comment? Or will it be as incomprehensible to them as Old English is to me?

    • Yes, I guess language evolution is just what happens, but when it is led by misuses becoming acceptable, it’s very annoying (although thinking about, it’s probably always led that way, so I don’t know why we bother trying to correct people for misuses when they’re likely to win in the end!).

  18. You always make me laugh, Vanessa. But this hit too close to the truth. I’m always appalled when I find out that a word has changed meaning to be almost the opposite. My kids and I always laugh about the word “Literally.” It’s always used wrong.

  19. That literally thing especially irks me. I’m with you. I’ve been noticing people misuse that for years. So now, instead of correcting the problem we make it acceptable. So much wrong with that.

  20. You can make any word mean anything if you say it enough to the right audience. Sometimes I try to do this to see if I can make a word catch on, and also to annoy my linguist friends because they get super bent out of shape.

    • Oh yes, it can be fun to completely make up a word and start using it to see if you can get others to use it. Also sayings, years ago I had a boss who loved proverbs and various sayings, but he’d always get them wrong, so we used to deliberately make some up, or combine two together (like he used to) and use them around him, and you could pretty much guarantee he’d come out with that same one later that day. So funny.

      • YES! I had a boss who thought she was so sophisticated and smart, and she’d say things like, “Que sarah sarah” (Que sera sera) or “A hand in the bird is worth two bushes” (A bird In the hand Is worth two in the bush.)

        • Yes, that’s the sort of thing! This boss, whenever he was telling people they weren’t doing their job well, instead of saying “You’ve got to put your socks up”, he would say “You’ve got to pull your socks together” – I think he was muddling it with “You’ve got to get your act together.” and he would say, “Well this isn’t the be end and all end.”

  21. No!!! Um, I mean, YES!!

    Vanessa, this is hilarious! I would roll around in the leaves of the OED if I could. Come to think of it, why can’t I? Ta ta!

    • It actually took me a while to figure out what OED stood for! See! I’m getting dumbed down by it all already! Got there in the end. I would like to see photos of you rolling around in those leaves please (if that doesn’t sound a bit wrong for me to ask!).

  22. By any chance, do you remember the Ebonics craze of the ’90′s? At the time, I didn’t dare speak a word against it because to do so made you look like a racist pig, but it was a tearing apart of the language.

    Oh…wait…this was a humorous post, wasn’t it? Once again, my train is off the tracks. Well, you must be used to it by now.

    • Oh gosh, I’d completely forgotten about Ebonics, or certainly the word itself. Yes, it’s meant be a humorous post, but I like to use humour to make actual points too, and I really was quite horrified to discover the addition to the definition of literally, so it all started from there!

  23. While this post may be designed to be humorous, Vanessa, the subject did make me pause. The “literal” definition in particular makes me cringe. Perhaps because I love language so much, but there is also a generation (and more!) of people who are using words without knowing what they mean, creating – as you say – chaos on the page (or screen)! It’s the Alanis Morissette “ironic” gag all over again.
    …Though, it might be a fun challenge to write a short piece using words with double meanings (contronyms?) and see where that leads us…. :)

    • Yes, I was just commenting to Exile that even though it was meant to be a humorous post, I was still wanting to make a real point. I am a little torn though because language does evolve, and it evolves to reflect usage, people don’t just make arbitrary decisions to add words, remove words, change meanings etc, and if I’m against the change to the definition of “literal” then does that mean I’m against the evolution of language itself? And if not, then where do I draw the line? I need to do some navel-gazing about this…

  24. It may seem like a conspiracy, but not all that glitters is gold. Maybe words just evolve, and we’re trying to make time stop still, which we can’t do. Adapt to new meanings and go with the flow I say, but can anyone understand what I’m saying? … what?

  25. Despite the travesty, it is interesting to see language evolve according to our new ideals, customs, technology, etc. So many words are outdated that I wonder if eventually they will be ousted from dictionaries and resources altogether because they either aren’t used or no one knows what they mean anymore. Can we kill off words? Apparently so.

    • I should imagine that with today’s technological advances, languages is evolving quicker than ever before. There’s a lot in our vocabulary that wasn’t there a few years ago, and I bet there are words that we used to use ourselves maybe 20 years ago that we’ve pretty much forgotten about now!

  26. Damn. These conspiracies keep appearing all the time. I will start a geeky spreadsheet forthwith. We CANNOT let them get away with this :)

  27. I agree with your analysis. This is the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. Because surely those two things mean the same thing. Thing.

  28. Pingback: The ABC Award | MIB's Instant Headache

  29. Fight the power, VJC – literally!

  30. Less words bad. Post good.

  31. Ooh – look at your blog, I go away for a little while and in the meantime it’s had a total transformation! Glad to see that you’re still unearthing the stories that have to be told.

  32. Thank you, Vanessa-Jane for calling attention to this problem. We can no longer sanction the destruction of our language, and will have to start issuing sanctions against those responsible. In fact, we need to form an oversight committee, just to make sure there are no oversights. If we strike quickly, we just might avoid — you know — striking out.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you’re on board with the sanctioning, desanctioning, and resanctioning as well as the variety of oversights and strike outs, as well as the undersights and the strike ins. Hope that’s all clear to everyone.

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