Thursday, 17 November 2016

Let's Play With The Language of Love

I'm a word nerd.  I love the English language and how it's like the Blob, continually absorbing more and more from all around it.  I love how it's possible to play with it, inventing words and references.  I admire Shakespeare and Whedon for their ability to sculpt with the language, creating whole new worlds of expression.

Words change and grow over time.  Their meaning can change radically over the centuries so as to become unrecognizable.  One of my favourite scenes in Sleepy Hollow was where, after two and a half centuries, Ichabod complains about linguistic shift, picking on the words awful and intercourse.  Awful used to mean "full of awe" and was used for transcendent experiences.  Intercourse used to refer to any type of interaction, not just the sexual.  Abby looks at him and says "So in the 18th century, if I went out with a guy and we had some awful intercourse, we'd have a second date?"

But those aren't the only words to transform.  I was watching the documentary American Slang and they had a whole section on the language of romance.  The very word romance originally meant "Roman-derived" instead of to do with love and relationships.  It became specialized due to two factors: the fall of Rome and the continual use of Latin as a common language.  French, Spanish and Italian are all derived from Latin roots, they are the "romance" languages.  As the Dark Ages progressed, it became increasingly difficult for the geographical regions of the former Empire to understand each other, unless they used classical Latin, which no one used as an everyday language.  Important works, such as treaties, philosophical and religious works, etc. were done in Latin so they could be universally understood.  Popular tales of history, love and adventure were done in local dialects and eventually became known by the short-hand as romance.  (Which makes romance officially the oldest genre of literature, I believe.)

Ever been called a hussy or a floozy?  (Probably not, since those mostly went out as insults by the fifties, but work with me.)  Hussy is a shortened form of hausfrau, or housewife.  Scholars aren't really sure how it came to have a pejorative sense, but it appears to have been a gradual transformation over several centuries.  Floozy is the shifted "flossie" referring to silk-worm floss (as opposed to sensible wool or cotton) and became a derogative term for people (mostly women) more concerned with fashion than their moral characters.

Most people know that honeymoon comes from the tradition of giving newlywed virgins privacy (a month = moon) and alcohol (mead, a honey based drink) in order to facilitate sexual success and encourage conception.  But did you know that mate is likely a shift from the word meat, and meant someone that you shared meat with?  This is in contrast with your companions, who you shared bread with (com + panis, with bread).  Meat is much more valuable and sharing it signified a deeper and more committed relationship.

I'm a firm believer in the power of words and I believe that Archimedes was wrong.  You don't need a lever to move the world, you only need the right words at the right time.  Playing with words can be incredibly satisfying.  I'd love to do a futuristic slang someday, the way Whedon did for Firefly, but I'm still serving my apprenticeship as a wordsmith.  English is a challenging language, always growing and evolving.  Which is why I love it.

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