Words are the widgets of my business, the business of writing, of communicating ideas and stimulating thought in readers. These days, writers can also expect to initiate dialogue, though even with enabled comments, readers are slow to respond directly. Still, you assume that having read the words, some readers will eventually respond. So from time to time I will use this forum to discuss my thoughts and feelings about the way our language is evolving and the effects the words we use might have on the way we think and act. Reader response is invited.
Languages will change as their speakers evolve; this is necessary and natural. Consider the word ‘Respect’. Everyone has a definition of that word and much conflict has ensued. My dictionary (New Oxford American of 2010) asserts that the word entails deep admiration for someone’s abilities or achievements but in common usage the depth of the word seems to have been lost.
Here’s a quote from a well-meaning post that nevertheless subscribes to the weakened definition of the word, that we’ve all come to accept.
Due regard means paying attention to another person’s beliefs. To regard something is to look at it. The Latin origin of the word respect also means Languages will change as their speakers evolve; this is necessary and natural. “to look back.” Respect is just observation. To respect a belief is to observe it — to acknowledge its existence.
So the word respect doesn’t actually pack a lot of punch. It really just means looking at another person’s beliefs. You don’t have to like those beliefs. You may even think they’re stupid. But you can still respect someone’s beliefs merely by acknowledging that such beliefs exist. That a pretty low bar, wouldn’t you say? [sic]
June 12, 2014 by Steve Pavlina
This loss of meaning, this reduction in the power and reach of the word, is the kind of thing George Orwell wrote about so eloquently and the harm that it does is something that I witnessed over and over again in the schools I’ve worked in.
The particular example, ‘Respect’, that I’ve chosen to focus on in this piece is one that’s common and commonly dangerous to young people. A fight was often the result of confusion over the way ‘Respect’ was accorded or denied in the interactions among students; out on the streets these fights sometimes involved weapons and fatalities.
Like Orwell, I see language as both expressive and formative. The ‘locker-room talk’ of adolescent boys is for many the source of the misguided ideas they take into adulthood. The insulting language of the jokes that we snigger over in private passes slowly into the mainstream current of our culture. It’s intellectual poison.
Americans don’t like being told how to behave or talk. The venerated idea of Free Speech is rightly a principle of American Freedom and Democracy. But confusing Free Speech with ignorant twaddle is going to do us all a lot of harm, destroying America’s Greatness with an efficiency that no Terrorist could hope to achieve. Those who would make America Great again need to recognize that common respect involves more than simple recognition of the right of the other to exist.
We have to remember and re-learn how to be excellent to each other.