Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)

by John McWhorter


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Language is always changing, but the way English is spoken today rubs many of us the wrong way. Whether it’s the use of literally to mean “figuratively,” or the way young people use LOL or business jargon like What’s the ask?—it often seems as if the language is deteriorating before our eyes.

But the truth is different and a lot less scary. Drawing examples from everyday life and employing a generous helping of humor, John McWhorter shows that these shifts are common to all languages, and that we should embrace these changes, not condemn them.

He opens our eyes to the surprising backstories to words and expressions we use every day. Did you know that silly once meant “blessed”? Or that ought was the original past tense of owe? Or that the suffix -ly in adverbs is actually a remnant of the word like?

In Words on the Move, McWhorter encourages us to marvel at the dynamism and resilience of the English language, and his book offers a delightful journey where we see that words are ever on the move and our lives are all the richer for it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250143785
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 09/12/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 357,458
Product dimensions: 5.62(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, The Power of Babel, and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He writes for TIME, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic, and his articles have also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Daily Beast.

Read an Excerpt

Words on the Move

By John McWhorter

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 John H. McWhorter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-473-2


The Faces of English

Words Get Personal

There's a reason that it often requires an art history class to get a handle on medieval painting. It may be pretty in a general sense, but it's hard not to notice that the people tend to exhibit only the broadest of emotions, if any — in much of medieval painting, the faces seem almost frozen blank.

It would never have occurred to a painter like Giotto to depict the full range of human expressions. The individualist focus that seems so natural to us was not yet a part of how one was taught to create art. Art was less about you, him, or her than about that: grander things such as religion and commemoration. We cherish the Mona Lisa as one of the heralds of the new era, with that smile we can imagine someone curling into near the middle of a good first date. And even that doesn't compare with the japingly sarcastic glow on the face of the Cossack scribe penning an insulting letter to the Turkish sultan in Elias Repin's most famous painting, Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, of 1891. It's lifelike in a fashion we'd never find in a Byzantine image.

This increasing focus on the individual is a theme in much of Western history. We can practically hear and smell Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, and Oscar Wao in a way that we never can any of the characters in The Iliad. To Plato and Aristotle, steeped in unquestioningly hierarchical ideologies, a political system guaranteeing all individuals "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" would have sounded like science fiction. Even the notion of a popular song "cover" is a sign of the times. To Cole Porter, it would have seemed alien to write a song for only one artist to sing, with anyone else required to wait about ten years to take a crack at it, and even then, have their effort classified as a salutary "version" of the first one. Today, a pop song is about one person expressing their one self.

Language, however, has always been ahead of the curve on individualism. Long before Rembrandt, Thomas Jefferson, or Adele, human language has always and forever been getting personal. Not in the sense of people having arguments, although of course that has been happening, too. Rather, one of the things that has always happened to a great many words is that they start out showing what we mean, but end up being used to show how we feel. This trajectory is as common as words getting shorter (I'd-a done it from I would have done it), cuter (horsey, brewsky), or nastier (hussy started as housewife). Just as often, a word nestles into a place in English that grammar mavens and quite a few others consider unsuitably vague, random, redundant, or as having no "real" meaning — the use of so at the start of a sentence is an example — when to a linguist the word in question is fulfilling a function as normal as marking past tense or making something plural.

This chapter will introduce you to something very old about language that, through no fault of our own, always seems new.

Well, What?

It's a whole wing of language that one hears too little about, with our natural intuition that a word is something with a meaning corresponding to some easily specified thing, concept, action, or quality. Ah, there is so much more to what it is to communicate as a human being. There are certainly the vanilla sentences. Horses run fast: if a toddler asks us what that means, we could easily go word by word and nail the matter. But then, how about another perfectly plausible sentence: Well, horses run fast. Okay: horses, run, and fast are easy. But what about well? What does well mean, Mommy? Note, this is not the well that refers to excellence: you didn't mean Expertly, horses run fast. This is that other little well, that you don't even think about.

Why did you say well, Mommy? Tough, isn't it? If we must, you use well that way to politely acknowledge a previous statement, usually before expressing some view counter to it. That is, you would say Well, horses run fast if someone had asked, out of genuine curiosity, why horses don't seem to get eaten by wolves. The well would nod politely to the person's ignorance on the topic before affording them the knowledge that horses run too fast to be caught by canines. With well you convey, of all things, a gracious attitude. To speak English is to know that subconsciously.

And when it's that hard to specify or master what a particular word "means," it's a good sign that we're in a different realm of language, where the tidy idea of nouns, verbs, adverbs, and conjunctions you learned in school doesn't do much for you, and a Schoolhouse Rock! jingle would be frustratingly diagonal. "Conjunction Junction" and "A Noun Is a Person, Place, or Thing!" were delightfully instructive tunes, but it's hard to imagine setting a melody to "Well implies discrepancy between a previous statement and what you wish to utter!" or at least one that would exactly catch on.

Why it would be hard to write a jingle about well is that it's about not labeling and describing, but something more abstract and subjective: attitude. Well allows us to indicate our take on what we're talking about; in this case, wanting to amend what someone has just said but without causing offense. Horse is objective; well is subjective. Horse is what you call something; well is about why you want to bring the horse up at all. Well is personal, and it is hardly alone: it is part of an aspect of language as central to being a person as naming things and saying what they do.

What is this realm of language called? I have held off because the term is one that seems almost designed to confuse. A more familiar concept is semantics: this refers to what words "mean" in the conventional sense. A horse is that magnificently peculiar animal; running is locomotion at a quick pace. However, when the issue is words used to indicate our attitude toward what we are saying, the topic is pragmatics. Ugh. We think of pragmatic as meaning "practical," but if anything, it's steak-and-potatoes semantics that seems practical compared to the subjectivity of a word like well in Well, horses run fast.

Linguists adopted the term pragmatism through its already abstractified usage by philosophers, referring to a school treating thought as not just mirroring reality in a passive way, but affording and mediating engagement with a surrounding environment in a more proactive, pragmatic way. Note the analogy between semantics, which is merely about naming and defining, and this other realm of language, which is about mediating emotionally between us and that which has been defined — in a practical, or pragmatic, fashion along the lines of the philosophical usage.

However, pragmatics is actually too broad a term for what I want to open up for you in this chapter. Getting our feelings in is only one part of what pragmatics entails. Pragmatics is also about what we want to call attention to (No, that sock, not this one!), what we want to leave in the background in order to get on to a new topic (Anyway, it's over now and we need to start on the new one), initiating a new topic without seeming abrupt (So, I heard there's a new way to peel garlic), and other things. Our concern is the personal, subjective wing of pragmatics, for which one term is modal, as in mood. In a sentence like Well, horses run fast, a word like well lends a note of personal orientation that often seems out of place in print statements, with a meaning so abstract that one almost wants to say it isn't a "real word." Our concern, then, is what linguists call modal pragmatic markers: we shall term them MPMs, but soon we'll exchange that term for something more user-friendly. For now, the point is less the jargon than that having MPMs and generating new MPMs is a normal process in any language.

Any language is always dragging some words from the chipper, gingham-dress, schoolroom straightforwardness of semantics (Horses live on farms!) into the MPM maw: layered, loaded, smoking Dunhills in the courtyard. MPMs are evidence of a word that started as an ordinary one, but then got personal.

The Personal Pull

MPMs are an extreme manifestation of a general process. Throughout any language, words of all kinds are always going personal to a certain extent: the subjective exerts a gravity-style pull on words' meanings. Example: must started out in the objective command sense: You must stand still. Later came an alternate meaning of must, as in (doorbell rings) That must be the Indian food. In saying that, we don't mean "I demand that that be the Indian food," but a more personal, subjective sense of mustness. You mean that within your mind and your sense of what is likely, logic requires that you must suppose that it's the Indian food, rather than the mail or a neighbor. First was the command meaning, objective and focused outward. But over time words often turn inward and become more about you. "That" (in my mind) "must be the Indian food": here is psychology. Must got personal.

Other times, things get so personal that the original meaning vanishes entirely. Here's some Tennyson (sorry): Lancelot's admirer Elaine is asleep "Till rathe she rose, half-cheated in the thought." Rathe? Angry, as in "wrathed," maybe? No, actually: the word meant "quick" or, in this passage, "early." Elaine is up early with things on her mind. Rathe meant "early," so rath-er, in Old and into Middle English, meant "earlier." But a meaning like that was ripe for going personal, as must did. It happens via what we could call meaning creep, by analogy with the term mission creep — bit by bit, new shades creep into what we consider the meaning of something to be, until one day the meaning has moved so far from the original one that it seems almost astounding.

What happened with rather is that something you've got going earlier or sooner is often something you like better. As such, if rather means "earlier," then there's an air about rather not only of sunrise, but of preferability. That is, to earlier English speakers, rather was as much about what you like better (something personal) as about the more concrete issue of what you do before you do something else. Today the relationship between the two meanings is clearer in sooner. In saying, "I'd sooner die than marry him," you mean not that you'd prefer your death to precede your nuptials, but that you don't want to marry the man in question. Over time, meaning creep of this kind can leave the original meaning in the dust, which is what happened with rather. Rather got so personal that its original meaning is now an archaism of the kind that throws us in reading Tennyson.

MPMs are what happens when this personal pull on words' meanings goes so far that a word no longer has what we can easily process as a meaning at all (Well, ...,) or has a meaning so divorced from the original that some mistake seems to have been made (the "teenager" usage of like).

In these cases, the word's very essence has become an expression of personal feeling, rather than being the name of a person, place, thing, action, or trait. We need not think of MPMs as smokers, actually, but I think it's safe to say they drink wine. They make the difference between the receptionist and the friend, between Siri and you. They bring language alive. Nor are MPMs usually as tough to specify as little well. They simply require us to expand our conception of what it is to "mean" something, especially since the fact that no one tells us about this side of language so often leads to misunderstandings about how people talk.

In putting a face on language, MPMs even lend themselves to a handy acronym, FACE, that allows us to explore how deeply this "secret" realm of language permeates our very beings. More specifically, the FACE schema gives us a sense of the perfectly ordinary place words have gone when, superficially, they seem to have gone off the rails because it's hard to nail down what they "mean." In English, MPMs can be classified according to four principal functions that they cluster around:

F: Factuality

A: Acknowledgment of others' state of mind

C: Counterexpectation

E: Easing

This likely seems a random set of distinctions. In fact, it constitutes quite a bit of what it is to actually talk — not speak or recite, but talk.

Factuality: For Real

The weather headline VERY COLD WEATHER NEXT WEEK is quite plausible, but REALLY COLD WEATHER NEXT WEEK sounds like The Onion, despite the fact that the two sentences have the same literal meaning. Yet we can't say that really is too slangy. Buttoned-up sorts say really all day long every day. There isn't really a lake there; I'd really like to meet an ombudsman — these sentences are hardly candidates for the Urban Dictionary.

What makes really seem out of place in a headline is that it is fundamentally emotional: it's too personal. We can sprinkle really all over a sentence to lend notes of personally backed insistence with an in-the-moment feel: Really, I didn't even see the point of going outside when it was that hot; He wants to pay it in installments, but really, what's point of dragging it out?; I'm just tired of the whole mess, really. Note that in all these cases, in reality would not convey the particular meaning that really does. The reason I'm just tired of the whole mess, in reality seems off is that really and in reality do not mean the same thing.

Really conveys a hand-on-the-heart testament, something individual in a way that in reality is not. In terms of the grand old Parts of Speech from our school days, really is often a kind of interjection. Formal language, as opposed to casual speech, is cooler, more objective, and thus really feels out of place in a news headline. "Really cold" would mean not only "very cold," but, in addition, that the degree of cold moves you, to the extent that you feel driven to point it out. Really is about your gut feelings in a way that very is much less so. Really comes coated in modal sauce.

But where does that coating come from? Why doesn't really simply mean "very" or "in reality"? Because some words get personal. Really is now so far from its origins in the word real that it doesn't even sound like its parent anymore. It's been uttered so often that it has melted into "rilly" — most of us realize the connection with real only as we learn to spell. Really is a tool: it less means something than does something. In peppering our casual speech with really, we give an ongoing kind of testament.

It's part of the fact that actual speech happens between live persons with needs and expectations. Part of an unspoken social contract with other persons is basic sincerity; language, naturally, reflects that. With really we ritually highlight the factuality of what we are saying, rather than simply making it and leaving it there, a practice that the impersonality of print allows more easily. Really flags our sincerity. The analogy is with how we perform a basic courtesy toward those we see regularly via asking, "How are you?" The reason we would often be almost offended to receive an actual answer is that, like really, "How are you?" does, rather than means, something.

Really, then, is a paradigm example of the F in FACE, the Factuality flavor of modal marker. The story of really has two parts, like a movie and its sequel. In the first installment, really was one of many English words meaning "truth" that came to mean very — such as very itself, which came from the French word for true, vrai (verrai in the late thirteenth century). Very is the well-worn version of verily just as "rilly" is what happens to really with heavy use. Truly was another example, of course, with true having undergone the same transformation as verrai a couple of centuries earlier. Even farther back there had been others. In the poem "The Owl and the Nightingale" of around 1200, the Middle English trips you up just as you think you're in good hands: Ich was in one sumere dale ..." ("I was in a summer dale") in one suthe digele hale. What? Digel was an original English word for "secret"; hale is "hall," or, in a poetic sense, "space," "place." But suthe: the key to that one is perhaps clearer in the way it would later be spelled, sooth: it meant "truth," captured today only in soothsayer. But sooth had an extended meaning as — you guessed it — "truly," or "very." In one suthe digele hale meant "in a very secluded place."


Excerpted from Words on the Move by John McWhorter. Copyright © 2016 John H. McWhorter. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents



1. The Faces of English: Words Get Personal
2. It’s the Implication That Matters: Words on the Move
3. When Words Stop Being Words: Where Does Grammar Come From?
4. A Vowel Is a Process: Words Start Sounding Different
5. Lexical Springtime: Words Mate and Reproduce
6. This Is Your Brain on Writing: Lingering Questions


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