Dead Metaphors, Macabre Morphemes… Slaying the English Language

Yes, I’m a language Nazi, not because I know so much (though I do know a lot), but because language fascinates me enough that after years of writing recreationally and professionally I still take the time to study and attempt to get it right.  What appalls me is the people who don’t.

I love writing.  I respect and I love it so much I don’t consider writing a skill but a sense.  I don’t function the same without it.  I don’t perceive as clearly without it.  As much as I love writing I thrill in the study of language.  Language is the only math that has ever made sense to me.  The function that unpacking it serves for me is that it helps me understand people, life.  Where writing is a sense, studying language is more of a reflex, a primal instinct like communal grooming, the sort of behavioral not polite enough for the dinner table.   I don’t have to do it, but I want to stew in semantics, etymology, linguistics all the time.

In my heart, I don’t understand other writers who don’t have that same exuberance for words or how they fit together, why they fit together the way they do, and how the meaning changes with the mere movement of an (Oxford) comma.  As a professional writer, though, that kind of intellectual masturbation wouldn’t serve me terribly well, as I’d never get anything done.

Because writing is such a subjective and personal craft some things I can forgive in deliberate poor construction.  As a native speaker in my natural habitat, though, carrying core knowledge of the English language into a single conversation  un-does me.   I hear commas in speech.  I see the dangling participles branching off that diagram line connecting with the verb.  Sometimes I get so lost in attempting to linguistically make sense of someone’s sentence structure that I miss what s/he is actually saying.

Kid Glove

I’m great fun at parties.

I’m always amazed by how many native speakers don’t know how to speak English.  I should cut us all some slack, as it’s a hard language to learn.  Screw that.  Structure and “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” aside, the thing that bothers me most in how we torment the language is that so often I can tell by the way people speak that they aren’t saying what they think they are, which makes me wonder what their internal process was leading up to what actually came out of their mouths.  My wonderfully well-rounded undergraduate writing degree taught me a few kernels that I’ve carried through twenty years of writing professionally, one of which is, “You can’t break the rules until you’ve learned them.”

The immature teenager in me hears that and says, “duh,” but my angst-ridden artist screams, “WHATEVER.”  My time in school left me questioning that dogma, though I didn’t totally ditch it.  My love for sentence structure and bizarre colloquialisms wouldn’t let me–until I’d gained enough experience in the industry, and with speaking adults.  That rule solidified one of my constant commandments in writing and speaking:  “If you don’t know what a word means, don’t write/say it.”

To that end, one of my favorite studies in school was dead metaphors–phrases for which the imagery no longer applies to contemporary living; thus, its meaning is lost, or dead.  There is some debate that as dead metaphors conform to the present that there is no such thing.  The prescriptivist grammarian in me disagrees.  For instance, take the phrase, “kid gloves,” for which I often hear, “kit gloves.”  Kid gloves were made from the skin of a young goat, a kid, and were revered for their supple, refined softness.  Thus, in lieu of more rigid, less conforming mitts, one handled delicate items with kid gloves.

Also there is one of my personal peeves, “moot point, ” which in modern use means an irrelevant argument.  Its origin was in medieval meets, or “moots,” councils who gathered to settle government matters.  I can’t tell you how many people I hear say, “mute point.”  How does that even make sense?  How do they hear the point?

Here’s the thing that started this whole rant:  I never thought I would encounter a metaphor that died within my own lifetime, nonetheless, it’s happened.  Recently, a friend used the phrase, “epic fail.”  In my circle of techno gamer geeks I would never have questioned the use of the phrase.  However, I know as fact the person who used the phrase has never participated in an RPG in her life, which told me instantly that she didn’t understand the sacred use of the holy phrase.  Those of you who played AD&D back in the day will recall rolling funky 20-sided dice to determine success or failure of a maneuver.  Within that range is the possibility to succeed (slay the creature/gain the treasure),  fail (trigger a trap while running for your life), or epic fail (trigger a trap that slays your whole party while running for your life).  Now, the phrase is used to signify anything unsatisfactory.  At its inception, there was a measurable quantification of fatal loss in its original meaning, for which even MMORPG players now don’t seem to have a basis.  In other words, in the world of critical hits forgetting your lunch isn’t a *faceplant* epic fail.

Which leads me to my other favorite language bastardization–made up words.  Some people call them slang,  I like to call them macabre morphemes because I think they kill the language as much as dead metaphors.  Morphemes are the smallest unit of a word that still makes semantic sense.  What is referred to as “bound splinter morphemes,” (I told you I’m a word geek) are oddly parsed together base words (morphemes) that have been accepted as words in their own right, such that former meaning of the individual bases is lost or overlooked.  The outcome of this blend is the joined splinters become a morpheme–an accepted English word.   I most often encounter them in marketing scenarios, in which a known word capitalizes on its established meaning while intending to recreate and sell something different, such as:

  • Croissan’wich
  • Bagelwich
  • Bageldog
  • McNuggets
  • Bubblicious
  • Craisins
  • Appletini

Then there are the descriptive titles one creates for oneself, serving the same marketing purpose:

  • Maxinista (skillful shoppers of TJ Maxx)
  • fashionista (fashion diva)
  • shamanista (ultimate girl shaman)

Finally, we have garden variety constructs so common that we don’t question their suggestive or individual splinter values anymore:

  • email
  • blog
  • netiquette
  • WaterGate
  • mockumentary
  • docudrama
  • sexaholic
  • fantabulous
  • chillaxin’
  • fugly

I know, I know.  Who the fuck do I think I am taking on the evolution of a language?   I get that’s the way language grows.  I just wish that it would evolve intelligently from the rules, rather than in mind-numbing absence of them.  And whoever wants to structurally and linguistically analyze this post I ask that you do so with a green pen.

9 thoughts on “Dead Metaphors, Macabre Morphemes… Slaying the English Language

  1. It warmed my heart to read this! I was kicked out of a Mystery Manor fan group for making a remark about a member who writes entirely in “text speak.” And I do mean ENTIRELY. What really bothered me is that this young woman is a university student in a third-world country where she is truly privileged indeed to be a female receiving a higher-level education. It deeply saddens me to think that the rest of the world sees the growing trend among Americans to butcher the English language as “cool.”

    1. I feel your pain. So often what is trendy replaces what is solid. Not a good trade in my book. Thanks for reading and commenting! See you in-game!!!

    1. I often wonder, also. I think as long as there are those of us torch-bearers the language stands a chance! Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Great post! My two teens have a fit if I use chatspeak or textspeak – even if I am texting them. (lol, take that, kids). I’ll get a response like: “Please rephrase in proper grammar or at least in English if you want me to reply”. Yes they are *snarky* (love that made up word).

    “You have to know the rules before you may break them.”

  3. oh, and don’t get me started on Subjunctive Mood. YES, it has its place! It is a nuance in the writing toolbox – use it, people! I refuse to let it die…

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