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Joseph Xavier Martin: Evolution of language can make you feel old

Our language is continually evolving. Every generation contributes its own idioms that express their collective wisdom.

A few generations back, people said that something interesting was “the cat’s pajamas.” Or that heading in the wrong direction was being a “wrong-way Corrigan.” These days, no young person would have any idea what those phrases meant.

In the discipline of political science, the process of establishing a uniform interpretation of language in use is called “operationalizing your terms.” That fancy handle simply means making sure everyone is using the same words to describe the same thing or action.

To ensure that everyone is on the same page, everyone has to understand what “going left” means or “moving forward.” Otherwise, you invite interpretational chaos.

Since my own childhood, many of the sayings that I took for granted have already been discarded on the linguistic junk heap. Who, of tender years, would know today what “where’s the beef?” or “is it real or is it Memorex?” means?

I suppose that those people learning English struggle with idiomatic usage in much the same fashion. Who would ever be able to explain the literal meaning of phrases like “barking up the wrong tree,” “put a sock in it,” “that dog won’t hunt” or dozens of other idioms to a puzzled student of the English language?

The process is inevitable. New thoughts, ideas and cultural practices will generate new terminology. Old ideas and terms will fall by the wayside, like dead leaves falling from a tree.

Our own current English language is an amalgam of Latin, various early Germanic tribal influences, French, Spanish and contributions by the native Picts, Celts and other tribes.

And then, of course, there is “American English,” which proper Brits decry as a barbaric offshoot of the original.

19th century American humorist and author Mark Twain once quipped that England and America were two countries divided by the same language.

The evolutionary process reminds me of trying to read “Beo-wulf,” in old English, for the first time in high school. It was very hard to understand.

Then Shakespeare froze for all time the usage of classical “Elizabethan English.” I still can’t decipher much of that obtuse rhetoric when reading his works.

Today, when I hear some young people chatting idly, I already feel dated. “Hooking up” is not only a new term, it is a virtually new concept that would never have been thought of before this day – let alone voiced.

Probably in 100 years, people will be communicating in what I call “kid speak.” To wit: r u g t t m? (Are you going to the mall?)

We already use LOL (laugh out loud), OMG (oh my gosh) and many other truncated phrases. They have slipped into our popular language and usage courtesy of texting and the internet.

Both mediums have spawned a virtual language, in the interests of brevity and clarity of meaning. TBONTB? (To be or not to be is the question.)

The answer, of course, is LWAS. (Let’s wait and see.)