I like being right. Have I mentioned that? I’m sure I have… crap. Now I feel like I’ve got to go back and double check… okay, maybe I didn’t, but it was implied. Yes, I did just go back and check my posts. I am indeed THAT anal. Because more than I like being right, I hate being wrong. A big part of my arguing addiction stems from not just proving that I’m right, but proving that I’m not wrong. If I’m wrong, I’m defective. My wit has failed me. I’ve been conned. My house was built on the sand, and who builds their house on the sand?
Because of this, when I get into a debate, I research. I try to make sure I’ve got some sources backing up my opinion. Of course, it would probably be better if I had sources BEFORE I formed my opinion, but that’s another matter. If I have to argue with someone, I aim to win. I’m firm. I am incisive. I elaborate and present my case clearly. I pay attention to the little wavy red lines underneath words. By the time I reply, I know things that I didn’t know when I started and take on the guise of an expert. Of course, if my internet connection is down or Google is having server issues, my apparent IQ drops by at least 40 points.
This is all a roundabout way to get to this: The dictionary drives me nuts.
The dictionary is supposed to be definitive… you know… by definition. The dictionary should be right. It should be a bastion of solid correctness in a flimsy, wishy-washy world. I should be able to refer to it and say: “See? This is what that word means.” Except I can’t. There’s this thing called linguistic shift. It’s why when kids read Shakespeare for the first time they say “aww, how beautiful… Why can’t we talk this way anymore,” or “huh?”. The way we use words, the way we spell words, the way we pronounce words, changes based on our geography and our culture. Their meanings change, sometimes antithetically (see: awful), not based on their roots, but on how people are using them wrong.
Seriously. It’s a case of a million wrongs make a right. If enough people use a word improperly for long enough, the great dictionary wizards shrug their shoulders, say “whatever,” and redefine the word. The other day, I wanted to say something along the lines of gay meaning happy, not homosexual, except that it doesn’t anymore. Sure, it sort of means happy, and the dictionary gives nod to that, but I’m wrong, because the “official” definition of gay now includes sexual overtones. “Irony” has been abused, spat on, beaten, and prostituted so many times that it means pretty much whatever someone wants it to mean in any given sentence. Ironic, isn’t it.
How does that work though? I’m in a position where I teach kids on a weekly basis. I don’t necessarily teach language, but they hear me use it, and they respect me (ha ha ha ha ha) as someone who knows what he’s talking about (snicker). Sometimes I wonder if, week in and week out, I used the word Asparagus instead of Forgive, it would catch on in the youth group. Maybe it would be an inside joke, maybe kids would just accept it. If they accepted it, they’d use it. Maybe someone would correct them. Maybe they’d argue. Maybe if THEY used it enough it would spread. Someday Websters’s dictionary would say 1: a greenish vegetable that looks and tastes like a stick 2: forgiveness. And that would be stupid.
The thing that’s driving me most nuts, though, is that I’m not sure whether I should be railing against the dictionary’s example or following it. Isn’t communication more important than correctness? What does it matter if I’m RIGHT if what I’m saying isn’t being received as I intend it to be? Rather than expecting everyone to conform to my well researched, etymologically correct ideas about what words should mean, shouldn’t I put away my pride and slip into the common language of the time? It’s symptomatic, really… semantics are my refuge; My fortress of superiority. It also makes it easy when I’m losing an argument to redefine success and call it a win.
I don’t know. I do know that I’m all too ready at any given point to draw a line in the sand and refuse to move when everyone else goes and plays on another beach. I need to be able to let go of being right, less concerned with the minutia and move on to the bigger picture. I strain out a gnat and swallow a camel, to use Biblical vernacular that has about as much place in contemporary North America as a thong on a mermaid. We’re made for community. We’re made to grow together, and language reflects that. The bigger picture is that I’m more likely to bring someone around to my point of view by walking through an issue with them rather than picking a spot and screaming at them to come over. The biggest picture is that I should care more about them than I do about being right, or, more to the point, than protecting myself from being wrong.
Bonus points for the people that were driven nuts by all the inappropriate (but culturally acceptable) uses of ellipses*. Please asparagus me.
*Yes, I did have to look up the correct plural of ellipsis.