Thursday, August 7, 2014

Word Warfare

A few professors from the University of Mississippi have complained that the nickname of the school, which is "Ole Miss," is racist.  Not being from the South and not understanding the historical context, I was flummoxed.  A friend turned me to another article to explain.  Researching yet further, I also discovered that there is debate on the true derivation of the moniker.

In the late 1880's the school held a contest to name the yearbook.  Elma Meeks entered the winning selection of "Old Miss."  While we'll never know what she meant, there are two predominate theories as to where the name might have come.  One is that it is simply a diminutive of Old Mississippi.  The other is that it's short for "Old Missus," from the slave's term for mistress of the plantation.  The agitated professors subscribe to the latter.

As a writer, editor, and sometimes etymologist, I take great interest in words: what they mean, their historical significance, and how they're used both in speech and writing.  For instance, one of my pet peeves is when people use "anxious" for "eager."  Anxious is the antithesis of eager; for when one is anxious one is dreading something.

Memes on the Internet are ripe with bad grammar, horrific spelling and downright misuse of words.  They're/there/their, it's/its, or lose/loose are commonly and incorrectly interchanged.  I've seen plane for plain, accept for except, prosecute for persecute...well, the list goes on.  The point is that even when we have a clearly defined meaning, humans are there to muck it up.

But, what happens when a word changes meaning over time?  Then what?  The masters at Webster's and Oxford English agree on this: any spoken language changes with time.  That's why Latin was chosen for medicine and science.  It is a language no longer spoken and therefore can not be altered by use.  The meanings of Latin words are frozen in time.

English, however, is another story.  "Awful" used to mean "inspiring wonder" not "horrid." "Brave" used to mean "showy" not "courageous."  "Bully" used to mean "good fellow" not someone who beats you up.  Words change meaning.  Names change meaning.  Our language ever evolves.

The nickname "Ole Miss" has been used at the university for over 100 years.  Can it now be said to refer only to the school, even if it might have had roots in a shameful past?  Can it not now mean only a beloved institution of higher learning?  Has the meaning become synonymous with a school?

I think the danger we have when we start down the road of being offended by a word that has a history we cannot tolerate is that we don't allow for growth or change.  If "pretty" still meant "sly or cunning" then it would be an insult (to most) and not a compliment we bestow.  Our language adapts and grows as our society transforms it with daily use...and abuse.  Maybe we simply need to accept that.

I've never subscribed to the PC policing of my phraseology, yet I've altered the words I use as times have changed.  People can get riled about words that upset, but let's face it, they're only words.  In some cases, surely, they are words with a sketchy past.  Now, there are certainly words that have too much baggage and those need to be shelved—you know of which words I speak.  It just seems to me that most words in our current vernacular can only offend someone looking to be offended.


1 comment:

vanillasugarblog said...

I always learn a new word when I read your latest posts. Your writing is so fluid, so perfectly placed.
I suck. lol
Love you kitty cat.
And yes, it's sad that "ole miss" is in question.
Pretty soon football will be too dangerous to play...