August 2018 . . . .

“Going out of style — with style!”

Recently I was explaining home ownership to my eldest. This is easily one of my favorite things. She enjoys (sometimes) hearing me talk, and likes (always) pulling my chain — often asking the next question before I’ve finished answering the first. In this particular conversation, however, things deteriorated subject-wise to the point where I was trying to tell her what a mortgage was and how it works, while she was already off on the tangent of renting, then leasing, and then wanted me to clarify the difference between taking out a loan and paying rent, and so on. All this while we stuffed our faces with pork chops and mashed potatoes. It was glorious, because we both knew how boring it was, and yet we continued forward like two crazed individuals rappelling down the side of a mountain, knowing that the rope wasn’t quite long enough to reach the bottom.

“Hey Dad,” she eventually interjected. “What is the difference between loaning and lending?” And my brain hiccupped, because it was a good question, a scholar’s question. But all I could think to say was that loan is a noun and lend is a verb.

Ahhh, but Google told it differently. A quick search showed they were both words from the old Germanic (with proto-Indo-European roots), origins timed in the fifteenth century. Both have noun and verb uses. It didn’t say when they were locked in place with grammatical rules, but I stubbornly reiterated that I was taught that one never says, “can you loan me your car?” but rather, “can you lend me your car?” The car is that thing which we lend. It is the loan (noun). The act of lending it, the verb.

I was also a little surprised that one of the examples given to explain this usage was, “can I have the loan of your car?” which threw it all into deeper, muddier grammatical water. And that “lend” is used more in British English, and “loan” in American English. Why this is so, it didn’t deign to say.

How much of the change, the evolution of the words, I asked myself, is due to faulty usage in the first place? Faulty usage that gains traction with so many users that eventually it becomes the new norm. And how much to ease of use, to economy, where two words that basically mean the same thing (in their root) are beginning to overlap in all functions until they reach synonymity?

And so all I can think is that one of them is going out of style, and the other will eventually be the common usage. I like to imagine that evolution is something that happens so slowly that it’s difficult to pinpoint the event and it doesn’t upset your personal applecart, but words are excellent examples of items whose comings and goings we can date with some accuracy.

I will tell you right now that I prefer “indisputably” over “undisputedly,” if they are traveling down some vague path towards synonymousness. (And I must say that I prefer using synonymousness over synonymity if for no other reason than because if you are a reader who subvocalizes, you’re going to stumble a bit there because of all the susurration involved. Hey, if we can’t have fun with words, what’s the point.)

But here we are hoisted on our own petard, because indisputably and undisputedly are not really synonyms. Not yet, anyhow. Indisputably means that after discussion, we all agree. Undisputedly means that even with no discussion, we all agree. That is what we call in the scribbling business a clear distinction. But the writing world is not the real world. When we make mistakes in word choice like this, it means that we don’t see the clear distinction. But the point is moot, if we’re in evolution mode. And ironically, moot does not mean that the point isn’t worth arguing about. It means that the point is worth arguing about (but perhaps we just don’t have the time for it, so let’s move on).

So words change. I know that, in the bones where I write, but I don’t always like the changes, or have to like them but must deal with them. Maybe I’m getting old. Words are meant to be remodeled, tweaked. We are creatures of language, but we are also provincial, no matter how cosmopolitan we claim to want to be. We talk the talk of our neighborhoods and townships, our cliques and clubs. It assists us in belonging, making things comfortable. So betwixt mutates into between. Or maybe they start at around the same era on two sides of the same mountain, and for similar reasons. Expanding, reaching out, they meet somewhere near the middle; the two words that mean the same thing hash it out, like duelists, for supremacy in the lexicon of the new, amalgamated people.

And I also think some mistakes require a society that occasionally takes out its red pen and marks up the copy. Fewer becomes lesser. One person’s inadvertent idiocy becomes idiom. Inexplicable inexplicably becomes unexplainable. Some root I cannot even hazard a guess at becomes persnickety, like a twig stepped on in a forest after a tree falls, alone. I’ve been told that one most common type of linguistic foul-up is called an “eggcorn;” a word or phrase that was passed along misheard, misspelled or misunderstood. A good example is “tow the line” rather than “toe the line.” Fun, almost clever, but wrong.

Instinctively (or instinctually — I can no longer say with confidence which), we editors try and make sense of the evolution of language, as it unrolls beneath our stumbling, but comfortably shod feet. Sometimes we get snarled in the mundane barbed wire of em dashes or Oxford commas, single or double spacebars after a period, but some of us run on through this no-persons’ land to leap into the trench on the other side, only to find that its occupants are no less or more enlightened about whether GIF is pronounced with a hard G or soft J sound. If we’re lucky, the disagreements don’t come to rancorous tweets filled (inasmuch as 144-character outbursts can be) with smarmy, sardonic wit. And then we are dashed against the stone by apps with no words, only pictures, because they tell a thousand words. Or do they? We hush and carry on. We leave that alone.

There is no check for this kind of change. Grammar police have no teeth. Educators are busy with more critical concerns. Journalists are .  .  . surrendering to the mob. The truth is, there is no more expedient way to age than start correcting someone else’s use of language. Insist that google is not a verb and the massed rolling of eyes will crush you like Sisyphus atop a hill in Hades. Your family and friends will assume that you’ve lost your ever-lovin’, blue-eyed mind. In My Fair Lady, no one likes Henry Higgins. No one. Be honest, he was a bit of a putz. Act like that and people will cease talking in front of you.

They will, however, talk behind you, wink-wink. And, in the end, we wish you good luck, for you cannot edit the entire world as it hyphenates, abbreviates, misspells, misuses, misquotes, misinterprets, takes out of context, acronyms, deafens, italicizes, subtextualizes, dangles, predicates and horsewhips the language into something so vague and mutant in its construct that it is nearly indecipherable. You’ll be boiling an unconjugated ocean.

And dinosaurs like me were intended to die out anyway, were they not?