A few months ago, a fellow editor, Paul Cipywnyk, told me and other members of the Editors’ Association of Canada about something perfectly awful that had happened.
Paul is, among other things, a streamkeeper. Streamkeepers are volunteers who help make sure that streams are living, flourishing places, hospitable and thriving, good homes to variety of life that uses them. He and fellow streamkeepers had been looking after a stream near his house for years. It was a beautiful stream, full of life, and salmon were spawning in it.
And then someone dumped some cleaning fluids into a storm drain that drained into the stream.
Overnight, the stream was ruined. Years of work ruined. Every last one of the fish was dead: the new fry, the yearlings… All wiped out. It will take years for the stream to regenerate. All because a thoughtless person dumped cleaning fluid. Oh, there are hefty fines for this. If they ever locate the person who did it. Good luck with that. (Visit the Byrne Creek streamkeepers site to find out more about this terrible incident and about thriving streams.)
I want to say that language is like a stream, and we – everyone who speaks the language – are like streamkeepers, but streamkeepers who also live in the stream.
Some people think of a stream as pure water, nothing but H2O, and think that a streamkeeper’s job is to keep it clean and pure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A stream is a living system, thriving with a multitude of life forms. It is always changing, never staying the same. If the water didn’t have O2 in it, the fish couldn’t survive; if it didn’t have plant matter in it, they’d starve. And if the fish didn’t digest what they ate and excrete it back into the water, the plants would be impoverished. Without life in the creek, it would be that much less useful to the animals that come there to feed. And so on. A streamkeeper keeps it thriving.
What I’m saying is that a language, a living language, is like a living stream. It’s always changing, always thriving. If you try to keep it in one state, you’ll kill it. But there’s more than that: we all share the responsibility of paying attention to what’s going on in it, making sure that it is as fertile as possible – that it has as much expressive potential as possible – and that it is not poisoned by ideas and inputs that do nothing but destroy.
We all share the responsibility because we are all always involved directly in the ongoing changing life of the language. We are always participating in that stream. We’re not keeping it pure. We’re keeping it alive, which is very nearly the exact opposite. And guess what: nobody who speaks a language is not involved in that. Everything everyone who uses the language says has some influence on it. The survival of the language depends precisely on our not keeping guard over its “purity”; it depends on our active involvement in it, on our caring about the changes it undergoes, because there are changes that increase its expressive potential and changes that decrease it.
Some people might think, when I talk about protecting about poisons, that I’m inveighing against loan words. Just the opposite. English thrives on its diversity. I’m also not inveighing against slang. A functioning language has many levels of usage. It’s important to keep all of them thriving, from high to low, or we lose ways of expressing ourselves, of setting up situations and perspectives.
What I”m against are things such as invented rules that subtract from the expressive potential and add nothing. (See “When an ‘error’ isn’t” for lots on this.) And even more than that, I’m against hateful false etymologies that introduce malicious ideas about words.
As you can read about at “Help stop a word-lynching” and my word tasting note on nitty-gritty, there are people out there inventing offensive etymologies for words. Some might say the best approach with such words is to avoid using them around people who are offended by them. But that would be to run up a white flag and let the vandals have their way. I believe in fighting back vigorously against this kind of attack, which is largely based on phonetic profiling and is no more defensible than racial profiling; it is highly destructive to our language and gives an incredible tool to people of ill will.
We need to recognize and constantly remind people that etymology is no guide to current use or intention. If speakers do not intend a certain meaning and hearers do not receive it, it does not inhere in the word regardless of its origins (if the opposite were the case, silly would not be insulting and nice would be). This cuts both ways, of course: on the one hand, there are words that may turn out to have origins that are less than pleasant (bulldoze is one such) but that no one thinks of when using them now, and so they are fine to use; on the other hand, there are words such as bloody, which was originally used in its negative sense (e.g., “You bloody fool”) as a reference to the haughty behaviour of nobility but was subsequently thought to have come from “by our lady” and by that token gained a much more taboo value, because those using who had heard the false etymology actually included that origin in their intentions.
This latter case is in fact an illustration of why we must vigorously fight against hurtful false etymologies. We can see that a false story about a word can change the intentions associated with the word. I don’t want that to happen with picnic, nitty-gritty or, to cite another instance plagued by an (older) falsehood, rule of thumb. These are useful terms that are used without evil intent, and there is no positive value in lading them with evil intent. It is just a vicious abuse of language by those who desire to hurt. And hurt they do.
Attacks of this sort on language and its users are like dumping chemicals into a stream. The people who are doing it may even think that what they’re doing will help cleanse the language. But ask Paul Cipywnyk what happens when someone dumps cleaning fluid into a stream.