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Once upon a time, I used to think that words had specific meanings. I now realize that when Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it is used to mean just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less”, the egghead was on to something. Although he was full of it and the yolk was on him, he had a promising future in politics until his untimely fall from grace. Even the King could not reconstitute his previous state. We have become used to this.
I strive to employ the precise word that refers to the precise meaning I wish to convey. The English language excels at two things - providing a plethora of words with the same basic meaning yet possessing exactitude of meaning befitting of Robin Hood’s splitting the proverbial arrow in the center of the target. Robin Hood allegedly split an arrow; the English language can split hairs, or miss the target completely. It’s all up to the skill of the archer, or author.
I would paraphrase Mr. Dumpty in this way, so as to exemplify my intended use of American English, thusly:
“When I choose a word, I choose a word that means exactly what I mean - neither more nor less nor something else.” (There are exceptions when I choose a word precisely due to its inexact or multiple meanings.)
My intent here is to produce a column at irregular intervals pointing out some of the interesting aspects of the English language. I might perhaps instead focus on the oddities of the French language- for example, objects must have a sex assigned to them- le, la, whatever- “le” vs. “la”, but I failed High School French due to a lack of interest (and perhaps, in part, to my French teacher’s Southern accent- American South, not Basque French- the running class joke was “Bonjour, y’all!”) If it were up to me, an éclair would be masculine in French (right shape, and squeeze it and goo comes out) and doughnuts would be obviously feminine (or anal, they do kind of pucker, sphincter-like. I’m not sure if French has an anal tense. It should have an oral tense. My anus would certainly be tense, particularly in Greece. Does Greek have an anal tense?)
Please consider the preceding as an introduction to my irregular column- (and please disregard the unfortunate mention of both irregular and anus in the same article, and apologies to any offended nationalities).
Today I will discuss the phrase “used to”.
I have used the phrase “used to” in three different meanings in the first paragraph of this article in order to illustrate my point.
In the first sentence I used “used to” as synonymous with “in the past, implicitly no longer so”, i.e., “I used to think…”
In the second sentence, “used to” is used to mean, “employed to or consumed to”, as in “It is used to mean just what I mean it to mean”. This may be considered the primary meaning.
One must wait for the fifth sentence, the last of the first paragraph, to see “used to” as in “We have become used to”
as synonymous with “ We have become accustomed to”.
(Note “S” vs. “Z” sounds for different usages.)
This last meaning merges with the goals of politicians and other mass marketers. We are comfortable with the familiar. Language may convey and condone the status quo, and counterculture slang defies and defiles it. Masses tend to trend, herd-like.
… but that’s a whole ‘nother column.
Next Time: #2: How Come?
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do."
- Ralph 'Where's Waldo' Emerson
"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like. And I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."
- Bilbo Baggins