George Carlin, a man obsessed by the search for truth, had a notable routine about the common misuse of phrases. In itself, it is quite interesting. Among the phrases he mentions are the terms sour grapes, cop out and get a monkey off your back. He points out that these terms have specific meanings that have been misused by public speakers. For example, a person with sour grapes is not jealous but instead rationalizes a failure. Likewise, to cop out is admit some guilt, not to find an excuse. A team cannot get a monkey off its back by stopping a losing streak since the monkey in this case is an addiction that controls its life. Nobody actually seeks to lose, rendering the expression inappropriate in the circumstances. The full video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn9elWR13Z4.
Aside from the cleverness and information in this video, it raises a much more profound issue. Specifically, is correctness determined by a small group of educated people or, to paraphrase Carlin, the mass of idiots out there? In other words, the unspoken debate, as in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, is whether truth, linguistic in this case, is objective or subjective.
On the one hand, I would agree that poor language cannot be justified by the quantity of Google hits. As an English lecture, I insist on the non-use of but in the beginning of a sentence despite its frequent use there in journalism. Likewise, I correct effect to affect when it is used as a verb although countless native speakers don’t know the difference. So, I support the insistence on language standards and calling a spade a spade.
Yet, when it comes to vocabulary meanings, I am not Don Quixote fighting the windmill of common use. People have always used terms as they sit fit even if the genealogy of the word did not justify such use. To take a modern example, the gay 90’s (1890’s) were happy times, supposedly, as compared to the gay 90’s (1990’s) when homosexuality became more accepted. The people of each period understood the term as they chose. Beyond that, I even embrace the dynamics of language. Language defines each generation in terms of its thinking and technology. Cloud technology existed a half century ago but was used for creating rain as compared to today. The dynamics of language development is fascinating and legitimate even if it is driven by a bunch of “assholes” as my brother would say.
So, while I sympathize and appreciate the efforts of Carlin and others to maintain standards in a language, when it comes to lexicon, I am not in the camp of Hamilton but in that of Jefferson. To explain, the meaning of the words is to be decided by the people, however uneducated they maybe, not by the elite, however superior they may be. Let the revolution continue, not that anybody can stop it.