I’ve never been an English teacher, but I get irritated by the misuse of words in ways that can confuse people who read or hear them. The whole purpose of words is to communicate, and when they make the transfer of information unreliable, mistakes happen. In these times, we don’t need more mistakes.
Word meanings change as time goes on. Some of that is due to constantly changing technology, some happens as social standards change. As meanings and usage change, sometimes one has to ask people to clarify their statements. It’s part of life.
People who study communication theory measure information transfer by the amount of surprise that is in a message. The other day, Eddie was talking to his girlfriend Mable on the phone when a truck with the sign “Betty’s Biscuits” went by, and he called Mable Betty. Mable was surprised, and went into volcano mode. As far as she was concerned, a lot of information had been transferred, and she reacted with a similar amount of information, which quite surprised Eddie, and caused him to wonder what had happened.
It has become fashionable to misuse the word “myself.” We noticed it first on commercial airplanes, when a cabin attendant said something like, “If you need anything, tell myself.” It would be more clear to say, “Tell me.” If I tell myself something, it’s a message from me to me, like a reminder. It would be correct to say, “I tell myself to tie my shoes, so I don’t trip on loose laces.” I think that the misuse of the word “myself” has come about because it has more syllables than “me,” and so, it sounds fancy. But people might wonder about you if you talk to yourself.
Some words have added meanings over time. According to Wikipedia, the word “energy” was possibly used for the first time in a work of Aristotle in the fourth century BCE. To him, energeia was a descriptive philosophical concept, and included ideas such as happiness and pleasure. Later, in the early 1800s, energy became a technical concept and was given a precise meaning: the capacity to do work. It is used to calculate what processes are possible.
Mechanical energy could be changed to other forms, like light, heat, electricity, and so on. More recently, the physics concept has merged the with Aristotle’s ideas, both meanings are used. Nowadays, you can feel energetic, and yet that can’t be accurately measured. When a physicist talks with a philosopher, both must understand the different meanings.
During the changing of words’ meanings, confusion often happens. In times past, the word, “broken” referred to something specific, such as a broken stick or leg or promise. For the last few years, in the heat of election frenzy, broken has become much more indefinite, which is a big advantage for politicians.
Saying that the U.S. is broken didn’t mean that a huge earthquake happened and the country actually broke apart along the Mississippi River. It meant that something was not working well, which is a lot less dramatic.
Simply saying something is broken allows speakers to avoid being specific, and create confusion. Politicians don’t seem to like being clear, though, it makes them too easy to contradict. I’ve not heard anyone ask, “What’s broken about it?” which would change a foggy complaint to a request for definition of problems, the first step to solving them.
Thus, the word, broken, has added a new meaning. It is an announcement that the speaker wants the audience to be upset, but lets them select the cause of their irritation.
Silence can also convey information. If a parent asks, “Did you make your bed?” and the child doesn’t answer, either he or she has bad hearing, or hasn’t made the bed. Distraction is similar. If the child replies, “I was watching the tornado coming at us,” that may take attention away from the bed issue, but probably not for long. Those of us with short attention spans are easily distracted, which lets speakers avoid answering uncomfortable questions. That happens often during presidential debates.
Confusing language is helpful to those who like being negative or have things to hide. Get used to it.