A friend of mine was wondering the other day why common expressions get dumbed down, in terms of usage being corrupted. It was because I'd used the phrase 'rhetorical question,' and he wanted to know exactly what that meant. Not that he hadn't heard it before, but how had it come to mean what it's now taken to mean, and were we even using it correctly?
I had to think about it. I decided it originally meant a question intended to spark discussion, a rhetorical device, in other words. Then why, Tony asked me, does it mean a question with an obvious answer, something that goes without saying? In this sense, Tony himself was posing a rhetorical question, something to encourage conversation or deepen our curiosity.
Why does language get less precise? We know English isn't static. It's full of borrowings, and disharmonies, and new constructions. Usage is a moving target. Leave it to the French, naturally, who being French have an Academy to settle these difficulties. The problem being that nobody under the age of four score and ten bothers to pay any attention. Younger people go right on using 'gigabyte,' or whichever neologism or borrowing fits the bill. If everybody else in the world is comfortable with the word, why complain that it lacks authenticity? Orthodoxy is itself suspect. Judgments are arbitrary. Who's being held to which standards?
It's curious, nonetheless, how vocabulary moves into common currency, and loses its specificity. Some of this is a broadening, or dilution, but some of it is almost willful misapprehension. Freudian, for example. Does it mean anything at all, other than being generally dismissive of self-examination, conflating it with self-indulgence? (You can be impatient of narcissism without discarding any and all inner reflection.) Another one is Darwinian. I'm thinking particularly of the expression 'Social Darwinism.' It's taken to mean a barbaric compact, brute force, the weak trampled underfoot, which describes the condition, but Darwinian it ain't. Survival of the fittest had never meant the biggest, baddest predator in the jungle, it's in fact more appropriate for the elusive prey animal who lives to see another day, and breeds for stealth.
Admittedly, we're talking science here, and complicated ideas get the pulp squeezed out. Marxist, there's a good candidate that's turned into a catchall. I think we might be talking about a general carelessness, or simple mistrust of ambiguities and contradictions, a constipation of our mental bowels. Thinking makes your head hurt, let's face it. Labels come easier. But that's almost presupposing a dumb gene, and dumb isn't a survival mechanism. Or what if it is? What if it's a social survival mechanism? Maybe it's about the aggregate comfort zone, not the individual's personal comfort at all.
Getting into deep waters. Maybe all it is, is laziness. Do we hear a double-negative in 'I Couldn't Care Less,' and lean into the wind? Or is 'I Could Care Less' not a correction of grammar but a contraction, one less syllable, one less hesitation in our thought process, a slip of the tongue? Language is an amalgam, and impure, but all the same, we keep trying for accuracy. The purpose of language, the purpose of words, is to explain ourselves. We can obviously use language to misdirect, to deceive or obscure or conceal - our words may be false, but they still have weight - and does a cracked glass then ring true?
If we lose meaning, if we pretend a thing is what it is not, we're substituting a false equivalency. It all weighs the same. Nope. Look again. Your glass is empty.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty," which is to be master - that's all."