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The Decline of American English Is Self-Inflicted

Updated on July 26, 2017

Here in the USA we excel at destroying language. I suspect it comes primarily from our need to be right. Instead of wanting to learn the correct way to do something, we assume we are right, and “to hell with anything else.”

“What does that word mean?” You ask? Not us. Here in the good ol' USA, we assume we know and call it good. There are countless examples of this. I'm not going to cover many, but there are a particular few I want to share.

Time to address some word crimes.

The word literal can no longer be taken literally.

No, I'm not great with CG
No, I'm not great with CG | Source

"Literally" Breaking English

I like the build up. Normally I'll start with the simpler ideas and build up to the crazy. I feel it helps one more easily connect with the insane ideas I spew forth from the toxic dump that is my mind. Considering the feedback I get, this method serves me well. This time, I'm doing things a little differently. Jumping in the deep end.

The word literal can no longer be taken literally.

“Wait, what?” You ask? It's okay, that statement doesn't make sense. Not because it isn't true, but because it is. If you're completely lost, that's okay. Let me explain. The definition of “literal” has been “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or exaggeration” or “true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual.” The commonality here being that “literal” means strict adherence to fact without exaggeration.

The ongoing trend in the US has been to use the word literal to emphasize a point. Usually through exaggeration. “She's so hot she's literally on fire,” for example. The word literal in this sentence is being used figuratively to exaggerate a point. The exact opposite of what literal actually means.

In recent years “literal” has been used to exaggerate so commonly in the US, its definition has actually changed. How is this possible? That's the nature of language. A word has meaning because we perceive it does. If a word is always used incorrectly, its meaning actually evolves into something else.

Perhaps the strangest part of it all is that it's made possible by the very nature of the language.

Which leads me to the next example:

Word Crimes

Really? Steam was shooting from your head and you're still alive? Awesome! I wish I had been there.

"Though" is "Tho" isn't "Though" ... What?

“Tho” is another example of the decline of the English language. It's also another example of avoiding the dictionary. “How is that word spelled again?” you ask. Don't wonder. Come up with the closest approximation you come up with. New word invented!

In the dictionary its “though.” Although, if you look it up these days, “tho” also makes an appearance. It used to be, “tho” wasn't there. I would know. I've been using Webster's since the eighties and this word has always bothered me.

So what happened? Why is it there now? Good questions. People have spelled it incorrectly enough that “tho” is typically understood. If a large enough group knows a word, it is part of the language. It may be slang, or unofficial, but it's still known and used.

Maybe you're aware Shakespeare did this a lot. He is said to have added thousands of words to the English language.

On to my last example.

Shakespeare

Crazy jerk added so many words to English. We adore him for it.
Crazy jerk added so many words to English. We adore him for it.

The Meaning of "Decimate"

What does it mean to “decimate”? Decimate literally means to kill one in every ten. Now, I don't just mean it's definition. Dec is from decem; which is ten in Latin. This is also where we get decimal, like "decimal point". Think about that a bit. When you break the word down into it's components, it literally means to destroy tenths of. Historically, the Romans used the word, and seem to be the first. Then, it was used to define punishment. To decimate groups of soldiers in an attempt to minimize deserters, or other major offences. It was thought; the fear of extensive casualties would dissuade people from acting unlawfully.

The great travesty in this is that we have used decimate incorrectly so frequently, it's original meaning is actually obsolete. Miriam-Webster lists the original meaning as the first, but Oxford, and Dictionary.com both list the older meaning as “historical” and “obsolete” respectively.

Source

The Crazy English Language

You know what's crazy about the English language? (Any similar language for that matter.) It is what it is because we use it. That also means words change based on how we use them. No matter what it was before, if enough of us use the words we have inherited a new way, the words become something else. This is true of gay, cool, awesome, far out, decimate, though/tho, literal, and any other word we misuse, whether by confusion or intention. In the end, how we use the word now is what the word becomes later.

Crap. I just invalidated everything else I said.

Wait, I'll reel it back in.

This fluid ability of our language is exactly why it helps to use a dictionary. By using the commonly understood meanings, our communication ends up that much easier to understand. Thereby, making everything we say more effective and clear. We can better convey ideas to each other if the meanings I use, and the meanings you use coincide.

So go ahead. Keep using that dictionary. Look up anything you didn't understand. Feel free to brush up on words you don't use often too. I'll wait.

As always, comments are welcome. Thanks for reading.

Okay, you got me. I'm not one to pretend I know a word and keep on trucking. I like to know what I'm saying. I use this magical device that most people have heard of, but few use. It's called a dictionary. Guess what; that amazing thing you're using right now, called the “internet” has access to several. Go ahead. Use it. Try it out a bit. Look up “dissuade” and “extensive” and even, “casualties”. I know there are those out there who don't know these words.

You know what? That's perfectly fine. There is no shame in not knowing something.

Shame only comes when you do nothing to learn.

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