Prepare to Be Shocked

A few days ago I stopped by my local library to drop off some books. When I was getting ready, I remembered that we had some pencils that needed sharpening.

I put a rubber band around them and headed for the library – which, it turns out, does not have a pencil sharpener. Those pencils are still in my purse. @#$*%&!

Did that little anecdote offend you?  Probably not. Pencil is such an innocent word that even kindergarten children use it. 

But if you look up the etymology (origin) of pencil,  you might be shocked. (The picture below might help you figure it out!)

Many lovers of English believe that we should avoid words that have an uncomfortable history.

For example, if you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re supposed  to get angry when someone says “hocus pocus.” The reason? It’s believed to be a mocking reference to the holiest words in a Latin Mass. (But there are other possible origins of “hocus-pocus.” You can learn more here:

Similarly gee, gosh, and golly may have started out as references to Jesus and God: if you use them to express dismay, you’re guilty of blasphemy.

It sounds like a valid academic argument. Shouldn’t we stick to the original meanings of words?

My answer is no – and many linguistics experts agree. It’s what the word means today that counts. (Yes, you can talk about a pencil!)

I have a favorite rebuttal when someone argues for the original meanings of words. Manuscript means “written by hand” in Latin. If you’re a professional writer, do you write your manuscripts by hand? Of course not! You use today’s meaning.

What’s most important is reminding ourselves that language is slippery. A word that bothers one person may seem perfectly okay to someone else. For example, I’ve been told that we shouldn’t say “master bedroom” because it evokes slavery. But it doesn’t have that association for me, and I have no problem with “master bedroom.”

On the other hand, there’s a church in my neighborhood that uses the term “overseer” instead of “pastor.” Umm – no. It’s not a word I would ever use. (Maybe I’ve read Gone with the Wind too many times!)

But many people are perfectly okay with “overseer.” For years I’ve been driving past a sign that announces the name of the “overseer” of that church. Nobody seems to have complained about it.

And that takes us to a larger point I want to make today. Language belongs to everybody. We need to be wary of anyone who lays down the law about a word, expression, or rule.

For many people, that’s an uncomfortable truth. Wouldn’t life be easier if we had one set of language rules? Yes, it would. 

But the easy route isn’t always the best route. In the end, I’m grateful that we have the right to make up our own minds about how we’re going to use our wonderful language.

Of course problems are going to arise, and mistakes will happen. But I’ll gladly accept that risk (even though I’ve stumbled myself numerous times!). I’m proud to be an owner of the English language. I hope you are too.

English reference books on a shelf

                                                                                                                          Courtesy of John Keogh, CC License


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