My War with Words

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I am fighting a losing battle, and I know it.

I want the English language to stop changing. Well, not completely; I don’t mind adding new words and expressions here and there; I just wish the old ones—and the way we use them—didn’t have to change.

I’ll give you an example:

When my daughters and I go out for a meal together and our server approaches the table, greeting us with a cheery, “Hi guys!” I feel my blood pressure rise and I have the overwhelming impulse to loudly state what should be obvious: that I am female and so are my daughters. . . . Clearly, there are no guys at this table! I glance at my girls; I know they know what I’m thinking, and that if I said what I was thinking, they’d be embarrassed. And it wouldn’t do any good anyway. (Apparently “guys” is the new “y’all”—and almost everyone is saying it.)

So I restrain myself.

My native language is changing. And I must adapt.

When I am at home, however, and the language changes are heard on TV, I do not feel the need to restrain myself—nor to adapt. Such as when the commercial for a low-sugar orange juice aired, in which the spokesperson stated that their product had “50% less calories.” My husband always braced himself when that ad ran—preparing for my tirade:

“It’s 50% FEWER calories!! What is wrong with you people?! You’re ruining the English language!!”

(I was thrilled when the ad was replaced with an updated version in which “less” was changed to “fewer.” It seems I wasn’t the only person who was bugged by the misusage, and apparently some of those other people actually took the initiative to write to the company instead of just shouting at their TV sets.)

Sometimes changes in language annoy me—not because they are incorrect in terms of grammar or gender, but because they take some of the grace out of the way we communicate. For instance, when I thank someone, I expect they’ll respond by saying “You’re welcome,” or “My pleasure.” When they instead say, “Not a problem,” it bothers me. Because in the back of my brain I find myself thinking that since they unexpectedly introduced the word “problem” into our exchange, perhaps it really was a problem . . . perhaps they didn’t really want to help me . . . perhaps I actually inconvenienced them.

(I was pleasantly surprised the first time a Wal-Mart employee responded to my “Thank you” by saying, “Happy to help.” I was even more pleased when I learned that Happy to Help is a corporate campaign, which meant I could expect to hear it again and again. If, to today’s Americans, saying “You’re welcome” seems too formal, and “My pleasure” seems old fashioned, I think “Happy to help” is a good replacement: it is both casual and gracious. So, thank you very much, Wal-Mart; I hope this catches on!)

I’ve wondered why changes in language bother me so much. I mean, as long as we still understand one another, do the changes really matter? As I considered this, I remembered how my Aunt Joey hated the fact that people in the 1960s had widely begun to refer to children as “kids.”

“They are children!” she’d say, “They aren’t goats!”

She was normally very easygoing, so it seemed odd to me at the time—that this would bother her so much. But in retrospect, I think I know why it did. My Aunt Joey, who would have been an excellent mother, was unable to have children. I think maybe she felt that referring to children as goats was demeaning, and that parents who did so didn’t understand how very blessed they were to have them.

As for me, maybe—just maybe—I hold on with white knuckles to language as I knew it when I was younger because it somehow reminds me of other things that I wish hadn’t changed . . . things which I would have held onto if I could have . . . things which I will never experience again.

Like hearing my husband’s truck rumble into the driveway of the house where our girls grew up, then watching him come in the front door in his flight suit—tired but smiling, telling me about the events of the day at the job he loved so much.

Or watching my daughter Alexis, at 17, sitting up high on a lifeguard stand in her red speedo with the white cross on it, her hair long and blonde, the summer before her senior year of high school.

Or hugging my daughter Alison, at 11, her lanky frame folded into my own, freckles sprinkled across her nose in the shape of the little dipper, the year before the mysterious symptoms began, before the start of the sickness that nearly took her from us.


Can it be that simple? That my problem with language is just my way of lashing out at loss?

Loss is an inevitable element in every life. We will all experience it and we all have to find ways to cope with it. Maybe trying to keep the English language from devolving into something unrecognizable is not an exercise in frustration for me . . . perhaps it’s actually healthy.

So I’ll keep it up. I’ll keep yelling at my TV, and, hey guys, I may even write a few letters.


Photo via Pixabay 

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