Not meaning what you mean

When a colleague in ESL or English answers “how are you?” With “I’m well”, I always think the substitution of “well” for “good” is a bit like pulling rank. It’s the linguistic equivalent of casually mentioning that you’d “been praying about something” or commenting on the gluten content of foods that your neighbor is eating – the invocation of a hierarchy that you know the you place yourself highly on, and everyone else lower. I do not accept the premise of that hierarchy (nor the others that I mentioned), but explaining that point is another long conversation that ends up making me look like the pedant.

Often, I find that in these conversations the core of the misunderstanding (from my perspective) is that there is a correct way to use words and that the speaker is showing off that he knows it.

There’s a switch in my mind that keeps flipping back and forth between annoyance and acquiescence at people’s tendency to talk about words this way – as if they had “true” or “original” meanings clear as day to prudent and thoughtful individuals (like the speaker), but which idiots (like you) are prone to getting wrong.

You see this most clearly nowadays in the Princess Bride meme, which always goes something like the following:

(can you believe Inigo Montoya and Saul Berenson on Homeland are the same actor?)

LITERALLY YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD. I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANSYOU KEEP SAYING 'IRONY. I DON'T THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS.

You might see this idea that words contain meanings which fluent speakers are capable of getting wrong (in its Princess Bride form or otherwise) deployed a variety of ways (here is one), but usually to condescend to someone and argue against their position ad hominem – the implication being that someone who is so slipshod with words must be mentally deficient in general. It also has a general-purpose use, outside of any particular argument, to serve as an in-group signifier. In these cases, the person complaining about other people’s poor language use is asserting his or her status as a “correct” language user. A knight of the old code, if you will, a defender of the faith.

The idea (that words contain true meanings which fluent speakers can be wrong about) behind this meme is clearly wrong, and no one who ever heard the words “social construction” as an undergrad should ever think otherwise. Words can only mean what speakers think they mean, and saying that someone doesn’t know what a word that they just used means usually is really a way of saying that usage is known but frowned upon (i.e., I am classier than you).

This is a transparent power play, often classist, chauvinist, or elitist. Certain words (I only know Japanese and English, but both languages have plenty) in languages are wedges used to distinguish members of groups, as in the story behind shibboleth. Two groups which seem to always exist in highly literate societies are “those whose language, culture, and customs are objectively correct” and “those whose are particular, local, and temporary”, and many words like “ain’t”, “a whole nother”, or the above memes, in addition to grammatical structures like “might could”, “to boldly go” or “It’s me”, serve as the stars on our proverbial Sneetch bellies. These usages aren’t really mistakes so much as an open flank for pedants to attack and claim the position of “correct language user” as outlined above. They have a negative sociolinguistic meaning, not an incorrect literal meaning.

Some pedants claim that such overcorrection is necessary, because languages need standards to maintain intelligibility. But intelligibility is never the issue. I’ve seen people point out the supposed illogic of a double negative in sentences like “I ain’t never”, but have never seen anyone actually act on the mistaken belief that the two negatives cancel each other out –  the supposed confusion is always feigned and exaggerated. If a pedant has ever legitimately been confused by “literally”, I’ve never seen it. The claim that by correcting misuse pedants are defending standards is doubly false – first because the violation is really an opportunity for them to play referee, and second because the standard doesn’t exist, or at least not as described.

Now, there are reasons as language teachers to treat words as objects of study in themselves, and use the metaphor of words “having” meaning, although as trained linguists we know that this can only be in the sense that an electromagnetic frequency “has” color or a country “has” borders. But grammar pedants are not all language teachers, and a conversation in the break room is not (generally) a language lesson. Turning lunch into a site of linguistic one-upsmanship literally decimates the mood of the break room, and is fulsomely ironic because as an otherwise full-time pedant you should be on a break.

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