It's been said that "words have meaning," so choose words carefully. Well, of course that's true, but words also lose their meaning when our culture engages in redefinition. That can occur by accident or by design. It can also be subtle. Sometimes it just happens, thanks to media over-saturation. But too often there's a method to the madness, with changes pushed by people with special agendas.
In today's society, if a word is used often enough it co-opts the original intent. Take the word "gay" for example. The Random House dictionary notes several definitions, with the number one choice noted as "having or showing a merry, lively mood: as in gay spirits; gay music." Then there's "given to or abounding in social or other pleasures," such as a "gay social season." Remember the old Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" There's a line that says, "With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings, when friends come to call." I'm surprised that hasn't been changed yet due to social pressure.
Sometime in recent years, the Broadway song "I Feel Pretty" (from West Side Story) morphed from "I feel pretty and witty and gay" into "pretty and witty and bright."
I guess the song has other potential problems, if you start thinking like a person steeped in political correctness and Orwellian language adjustments. How about where the character Maria sings, " I feel stunning and entrancing, feel like running and dancing for joy, for I'm loved by a pretty wonderful boy!"
Ah ha! There's another more of that archaic "traditional relationship," fuddy-duddy thinking again. After seeing what happens when any prominent person stands up for "traditional marriage" (or supports Proposition 8), the lyrics might have to be changed to pass some sort of new 2009 national sensitivity test.
By the way, just a search for the word "gay" on Dictionary.com leads to adjacent ads for "pride parades" and related nightspots, despite the fact that the definition "homosexual" is down the definition list at No. 5. The most popular use of the word has already gone from an adjective to a noun.
And now that the Andy Williams song is running through our heads, what's the Christmas season without continuous attempts to strike "offensive" words like, well, "Christmas"… and "Jesus" and "Nativity" from the national vernacular.
Yes, words mean things. Or they did. As words change, often with the help of anti-free speech fans, Americans start to feel guilty if they use a word they used to say with its proper (but now old) definition. Sometimes elected officials even get into the act, proposing ways to limit use of words in their previous context (demonstrating the need for more part-time lawmakers).
Even words that never existed reach lofty, more acceptable dictionary status if people use (or misuse) them enough. Webster's Dictionary just added webisode, water boarding, frenemy, staycation and green collar. Just because people use the terms very often, they're now solidified in our language. Those are right up there with the use of "impacting" and "impacted." I know this because I read about the subject while doing some "texting."
My nomination for very latest OVER-used words include "iconic" and "amazing." It's as if the entire country got a briefing memo instructing everyone on frequent usage.
I just did a web search for the word "iconic." I found more than 18.000 references in news stories alone. Add the word icon to iconic and there's another 30,000-plus story references.
In recent weeks, we've been told cartoon character Sponge Bob Squarepants is an icon, along with Farrah Fawcett and just about any other celebrity of note. But no one has been elevated to the status of Michael Jackson. His too short, talented-yet-sad life story is filled with iconic images, he's a pop music icon… all of that. There's so much talk of iconic references these days that the word's original definition is lost.
I even fell into the overused word trap with last month's column, referring to the iconic 1968 image of earth-from-the-moon, taken from Apollo 8. (Actually, that photo WAS iconic, for many reasons.)
The Random House dictionary definition of icon is: "A picture, image or other representation; a representation of some sacred personage; a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or anthology to it."
We're a long way from the original meaning these days. So many formerly powerful words are used too often, diminishing the strongest meaning and impact. It's amazing.
In fact, "amazing" is one more overused word these days. Just watch any TV show about Hollywood, fashion or pop culture and you'll hear "amazing" used in many ways: "It was amazing!" "What an amazing performance!" Or listen to everyday conversations ala, "She looks AMAZING!!!"
I still like to think that images (dare I say iconic) such as the Grand Canyon truly are amazing. But some odd performance on "America's Got Talent" (should it be HAS talent?) doesn't qualify.
Now some good news. There is one word that hasn't yet lost its meaning through all of this cultural watering down of the language, and that word is GRACE.
In the biblical context, that really IS amazing. Thank God.
Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. He can be heard daily in San Diego on KCBQ 1170AM from 7-9AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published, August 2009