What Do Words Mean?

Charlie and I are at a mountain resort in New York for several days of fishing (we throw the fish back), hiking, and eating. The food here is superb, and as an extra delight, there’s a soda fountain where we share an egg cream every afternoon.

If you’re not a New Yorker, you’ve probably never had an egg cream. This resort is two hours north of the city, so it was a surprise to find egg creams offered here. (Perhaps a homesick Brooklynite decided to add them to the soda fountain offerings.)

The name is a misnomer because the ingredients include neither eggs nor cream. Egg creams are made from milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup. Nobody knows for sure how this wonderful drink acquired its name.

The term “egg cream” is a perfect illustration for an issue I want to talk about today: the changing meanings of words. Opinions are divided about how you properly determine the meaning of a word. Some experts say that you need to stick as closely as possible to the original meaning. Other experts say you need to go with the flow. Who is right?

The second group. (I can hear yelps!)

I will concede that the first group has some strong arguments in its favor. There is something intellectually satisfying about insisting on the original meaning of a word. My horticulturist husband positively froths when someone talks about a “ponytail palm,” for example. It’s a ponytail plant or a ponytail tree – not a palm at all. (Actually it’s a member of the lily family.)

Often when the meaning of a word changes, we get the feeling that the language is deteriorating – and sometimes that’s true. For example, disinterested (“impartial”) is gradually merging with uninterested (“not caring”). That means we’re losing a useful word from the language.

The same thing is happening to  notoriety (“having a bad reputation”), which is gradually merging with fame (“renown”). Soon we’ll have no word to signify that someone is famous for the wrong reasons.

So why are the meanings of words allowed to change? Because sometimes people really like the new meanings. One useful is example is dingbat, which used to be slang for “money” or “tramp.” Printers also use dingbat to refer to a printing ornament.

But in 1971 the meaning changed forever because Archie Bunker started calling his wife a dingbat. Does anyone seriously want to argue that we’re all going to go back to the old meanings of dingbat? Ain’t gonna happen, folks.

While I was drinking yesterday’s egg cream, I started to think about some changing words that showed up in Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie article Most Common Formal Grammatical Errors Committed by Authors. (A few days ago I posted some comments about what he’d written.) Onwuegbuzie is worried that academic writers are straying from the traditional meaning of words like since, while, may, and might.

Since and while – to his way of thinking – are time-related words. So these usages are prohibited:

Since we’re going to be away next week, let’s ask Joan to pick up our mail. (Since means “because” here)

While Seventh-Day Adventists observe Saturday as the Sabbath, most Christians go to church on Sunday.  (While means “although” here)

And Ongwuegbuzie wants to use may only in the sense of permission. So this usage is prohibited:

We may go for a nature walk right after breakfast tomorrow.  (May is similar to “might” here)

If you check a recent dictionary, however, you will find that all these usages are perfectly acceptable today. A purist might not be happy about this state of affairs – but there’s no stopping it. Language belongs to all of us, and we are the ones who make the changes. Feel the power!

         Egg Cream



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