Helen of Marlowe's Blog

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Posted in Language by helenofmarlowe on January 22, 2012

Have we abandoned the idea that words have meaning?

In our local paper yesterday, in a story about Target being refurbished, the local “executive manager of logistics” is quoted as saying, “… it will be more inviting to our guests.”

Guests? Guests don’t pay. At least that used to be the case. What Target has is customers. And there’s nothing wrong with that word. I know that words evolve, language evolves. It made a little bit of sense some years ago when hotels began referring to their customers/clients/patrons as guests – since hotel “guests” do in fact stay overnight and eat meals, as your own house guest would do. But for Target, it seems a bit of a stretch.

In so many ways, words have lost their primary purpose of communicating, and have taken on a manipulative aspect.

Another example: I believe in protecting the lives of women, even when they’re pregnant. I believe in protecting the lives of panthers and bison and dolphins. I believe in protecting the arctic fox and the lynx. I believe in saving the amur leopard, of which there are only about twenty left in the world. I believe in the right to life of plants, if not individually, then as species. I believe that humans should not kill other animals for food or sport (though I would not condemn a starving hunter lost in the wild who knows that the net loss will be one life, either self or other). I believe nations have a responsibility to provide medical care to all its children, all its citizens – not just those who pay monthly premiums to a for-profit insurance company. Doesn’t this make me pro-life?

Not politically, but if language still made sense it would. But the term pro-life has been abducted, beaten out of shape, and recycled to mean some nonsense that defies logic.

How can we re-claim that term? From those who would destroy habitat and the planet in order to accommodate the one species of animal (human) that seems set on destroying the diversity of life on this planet? And are still claiming the term pro-life?

And as a last example of renegade language, I went yesterday to buy a gps in preparation for an upcoming fairly long trip. I opted for the more expensive model, because by paying more, I could get “free” map updates. Pay more, get “free” updates. ok.

As an aside – when I go into Target, I always notice a sign on their door: “Guide dogs only”. What? Wait – I’m not a guide dog . I can’t go in? Before I enter, the thought always arrests me momentarily… I’m not a guide dog! I can’t go in! And then I reconsider. They’d have no “guests” if people read the notices to mean what they say.

12 Responses

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  1. Anders said, on January 22, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    I have to disagree about the word “guest”. Etymologically, it just means “stranger”, and doesn’t really refer to whether or not the person pays his way. In germanic languages, inns, hotels and restaurants have referred to their customers as guests for hundreds of years.

    About reclaiming “pro-life”, I don’t think it is possible, once a use of a word has established itself, to get it back to its roots. Take the word “pedophile”. By parallel with other -phile words, it should really mean someone who likes children. Gramophile or bibliophile, for example, don’t have sexual connotations at all. But it is too far gone, and so now we don’t have a good word for a person who simply likes children in a non-sexual way, and trying to “reclaim” the word pedophile for that purpose is dead on arrival (if you don’t believe me, imagine suggesting to a person applying for a job at a kindergarten to advertise his love of children by using that word).

    Similarly (but perhaps less dramatically), the term “pro-life” has meant anti-choice for too long, it is a lost cause to try to point out that people who advocate the death penalty really aren’t all that pro-life, it is too late

    People are just too “nice” to appreciate linguistic subtlety in such inflamed subjects

    • helenofmarlowe said, on January 23, 2012 at 11:43 am

      good points Anders. Especially about the death penalty. Most (not all) people who call themselves pro-life are in favor of the death penalty. I have to say I laughed at the last sentence in your second paragraph. It makes me laugh again as I re-read it.

  2. Jim Wheeler said, on January 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Still Skeptical After All These Years and commented:
    Helen’s post, re-blogged here, got my mental wheels going on the subject of the English language. I believe it to be the world’s greatest, but it is surely the most complex of them all. While I have only studied two other languages, Latin and German, I believe English to be more dependent on context than others and it is surely richer in nuances and subtleties. As a devoted fan of crossword puzzles I am constantly amazed at the almost unlimited variations in presenting clues to the same answers.

    What Helen says about the usage of “guest” and “pro-life” makes me think of another example, i.e., “home”. It has always irritated me that realtors insist on calling houses “homes”. To me, a home connotes something more than a structure, it means a place which one had adapted according to one’s own likes and lifestyle and for them to presume to sell me a home seems to usurp my privilege to take a house and make it my own. But when I go to the dictionary I see that the word “home” now includes all such variations. But that is the nature of our language, is it not?

    I thought of another oddity about how our language works too. How about words like “disgruntled” and “nonplussed”? Why is it that nobody ever gets “gruntled” or “plussed”? And just think what society has done to the word “gay” since the early twentieth century! It’s enough to discombobulate anybody. I think what I need is something to recombobulate myself.

    • helenofmarlowe said, on January 23, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      Ah, another crossword devotee! Our daily newspaper has dropped most of the worthwhile columnists (Krugman, Friedman, etc.) and kept the likes of Cal Thomas and Krauthammer, so I’d be sorely tempted to cancel the subscription except that (1) I believe in supporting newspapers, and (2) I like to do the xword puzzle with a blue ball-point pen, not with a keyboard. And of course the cryptoquote.

      I agree with your observation about the distinction between a house and a home. As in the example that set me off, I see that as another commercial manipulation, not a natural evolution.

      Lots of fun examples — ruthless is one of my favorites. My middle name is Ruth, so when my husband goes off without me, is he being ruthless? Is anyone ever described as being ruth?

      • mark said, on January 23, 2012 at 6:44 pm

        Helen I certainly hope you are never ruthless.

        • helenofmarlowe said, on January 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm

          That’s funny. I don’t even know what my state of being would be if I were ruthless.

    • Anders said, on January 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      You can be gruntled, it’s just very archaic. Non plus means “no more”, so I guess “plussed” would be someone who hasn’t had enough, who seeks more. But words made up from latin phrases rarely follow grammatical rules. If they did, a clever, together person would be a compoop

      Discombobulate isn’t a real word, it’s a made up joke word.

      Many words in English start out as either completely made up, or simply misunderstood. My personal favourite is the story of “go” – why did “wend” die, and why did its past tense attach itself to the word go? That leaves me both nonplussed and plussed.

      • helenofmarlowe said, on January 23, 2012 at 10:13 pm

        Anders, that’s interesting. I didn’t know until your comment inspired me to look it up that “…when ‘wend’ began to fade from use around 1500, the word ‘went’ was gradually adopted as the past tense form of ‘to go’ “

  3. PiedType said, on January 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Love posts about our forever-changing language.

  4. Rovor said, on January 23, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Can a person just be plain ruth?
    Well, I don’t know, but according to Milton,
    one can ” . . . look homeward, Angel, now
    and melt with ruth.”
    (from “Lycidas”)

  5. Joseph Gilmore said, on January 24, 2012 at 6:34 am

    I’ve been to Target many times and I’ve never been treated like a guest there. Hmmph, maybe it’s because I too ain’t a guide-dog.

    This is good. Posts like this are always fun.

  6. Helen of Marlowe's Blog said, on April 10, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    […] I’ve written before, such as here (Hospitality Customers), I do think language […]

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