A brisk look at how and why words change.
In his 17th book investigating the variety, history, and idiosyncrasy of language, McWhorter (English and Comparative Literature/Columbia Univ.; The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, 2014, etc.) enthusiastically makes the case that language is fluid. “It’s always a safe bet that a word will not be tomorrow what it is today,” he writes. Language is “something becoming rather than being” and “ever in flux; the changing is all there is.” To support this idea, repeated throughout the book, McWhorter offers myriad, and often fascinating, word histories. The word “silly,” for example, evolved from meaning “blessed” to “innocent” to “weak.” Some words narrow or broaden their meanings: “apple” once referred to all fruit, and what we call “meat” used to be “flesh.” The author devotes much discussion to “literally,” which originally meant “by the letter” but has gained “purely figurative usage” to mean something closer to “actually.” McWhorter is not bothered by this drift in meaning, but he realizes that some people are. “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?” he is often asked. He concedes that individual misuse or mispronunciations can’t be defended, but he is on the lookout for widespread changes. “Nuclear,” he writes, is pronounced “nucular” by some who, he suggests generously, may be modeling it on such words as “spectacular” and “tubular.” Tracing patterns of changing sounds, the author notes that when verbs become nouns, the accent shifts backward: “It’s why someone who re-BELS is a RE-bel.” McWhorter also offers an intricate, if not fully convincing, etymology to defend the ubiquitous use of “like” in popular speech. Although he posits “no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense,” he does acknowledge “that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others.”
As in most of his books, McWhorter proves to be a well-informed and cheerful guide to linguistics.