From the old birthday rhyme: “The child that is born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.”
“Whaat?” you may now ask. “Just because it was a Sunday!”
In my college days, gay primarily meant cheerful. Gay has four meanings in my old 1974 edition of the Oxford
Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD): 1. light-hearted; cheerful… 2. suggesting happiness… 3. loose, irresponsible…
4. (colloquial) homosexual.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the latest OALD edition, where the order or importance is upside-down: 1. (of people,
especially men)… homosexual. 2. [only before noun] connected with people who are gay: a gay bar... 3. boring...
4. happy and full of fun. Meaning No. 4 is also described as “old-fashioned” usage. How English has changed
in my own working life!
A few more examples: Awesome was something that frightened you (maybe an erupting volcano). Now it means
very good (like a tasty sandwich). The same thing happened in the 19th century to terrific, which originally meant
“filled with terror.” Faculty was a group of academic departments or teachers (also known as members of the faculty).
But today (in Mumbai) I often hear, “He is a faculty at our college.” Invite was always a verb (you couldn’t send an
invite, you sent an invitation).
I was told to avoid But at the start of a sentence. But that’s perfectly okay now. Rekha used to be an actress, as
were a lot of other Bollywood ladies. Now they’re all actors. And I might say, “Every actor loves their job.” (Don’t
complain, I’ve just used the “gender-neutral singular their” and avoided the clumsy “his or her.”)
You have to keep up with such changes—or you might think much of what you hear or read is wrong.
In March 2010, Reader’s Digest ran an international cover story with the title “Who Do You Trust?” after we carried
out online polls in Australia, South Africa, Singapore, Canada and India—all former colonies where English thrives.
Should we have used Whom? We debated it during a teleconference on the article among senior Digest editors in
some of those countries and the consensus was that Whom, if used here, would make us sound stuffy and
academic. So we deliberately chose Who. A few years ago, we might all have lost our jobs. But whom is now
old-fashioned in many circles, and may soon vanish just the way thou did.
Editors taking such a decision—one way change comes about in the language of Milton, Shakespeare and
The Digest. And who else can you trust to set such changes in motion? Youngsters, bloggers, musicians (“Who
do you love?” Bo Diddley / Rolling Stones), but not your average English teacher, although anyone who graduated
with English should have learnt that a living language must keep changing, or else it is dead.
The anti-hopefully brigade. I was once told to avoid that most positive of words: Hopefully, which roughly means
“we hope something will happen.” I couldn’t understand the logic, since nobody complained about starting a
line with similar words like Regrettably or Fortunately. But Hopefully (used as in “Hopefully, we’ll get there by
lunchtime”) arrived late into English, only in the 1960s. One professor even started the Anti-Hopefully Society,
maintaining that people who go about saying “hopefully” should be informed of that terrible error.
Nobody cared for him, and anyone who wanted to say “Hopefully, …” did so with impunity. Older dictionaries
warn you about the usage.
“… it is still considered incorrect by some people,” warns my 1995 Concise Oxford Dictionary.
Meanwhile, the new Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English has no such warning. It also has some entries
in red, denoting the most commonly used words in the language. Words like immediately, never and hopefully.
Grammarians who objected explained that while adverbs such as regretfully and fortunately can be converted to
the form “it is regrettable that” or “it is fortunate that,” hopefully could not be converted to “it is hopable that.”
How silly!Why convert? Why bother about stodgy grammarians? Just say Hopefully... when you want to. It’s free.
That best-selling Reader’s Digest book How to Write and Speak Better has the last word on Hopefully: “The only
reason to avoid it is to wish not to sound illiterate in the ears of traditionalists.”
Corrupting Shakespeare. You can’t win against the slow and steady power of a living, changing language. As
long as our needs change, there will be new words spoken, new grammatical “mistakes” and new ways of
using old words. Many of them will slip into writing or print as well, sometimes with new short forms.
So your best bet is to understand new usage (check new dictionaries or use an online resource like
dictionary.com) and stop complaining about the “bad, incorrect, faulty, improper English young people use these
days.” It’s those young people who always win by the time they are older and complaining about the next
generation of young people murdering the language.
Most of us can’t understand much of Shakespeare without footnotes or teachers, primarily because English has
been “corrupted” since his day. Go back another 200 years and you’ll find Chaucer’s language even more
incomprehensible. Take his first line from The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote...”
[Modern corruption: “When April with its sweet showers...”]. Let’s rewind yet another 200 years and try to read this
purest form of written English from the epic Beowulf, another famous first line: “Hwæt! We Gardena in
Can’t understand good Old English, huh? Neither can I. Centuries of abuse by ignorant youngsters (and editors)
contributed to the English you could follow easily when you watched Beowulf, the recent movie.
Finally, let’s return to the present day and this SMS, also in English: “onnta! pls hoas m8, ive pos rn. brb.” **
You think you can stop that trend? Im rofl. *
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings…**
Oh, no, not this again. Please hold on asecond, mate. I have parent over shoulder right now. Be right back.