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Apr 13, 2022
Opinion Writer People occasionally complain to me that so many today seem to lean on profanity rather than utilizing the other lexical resources at their disposal. “Why do they have to keep using that word over and over? What is that?” I was asked by someone of a certain age, for example, when I spoke at a gathering of academics last week. We all can guess which word he meant — it starts with f — but I don’t hear it the way he does. It’s partly because we sometimes miss the richness of meaning in our profanity and partly because we tend to miss the richness of how we use the rest of our vocabulary. Our default sense of a word involves a single meaning: Even when a word such as “candle,” typically used as a noun, is used as a verb, it still means holding a candle or a light up to better see something. But so very many words are used in a wide range of meanings, and while idioms are part of that range, even they are only the beginning. The morning before the event I spoke at, for example, I watched the new Blu-ray restoration of the first “A Star Is Born” film, from 1937. (Film fans should get a look; this is one of the major early Technicolor films, and it now looks splendid.) In one scene, Norman (played beautifully by Fredric March, whose purported membership in the Ku Klux Klan I took issue with last fall) playfully replies to ribbing from Esther (Janet Gaynor) with: “And don’t throw that up to me now.” I had never heard that expression but easily found it in an older book , and its meaning is evident. To use it back then meant that one knew not only the basic meaning of the word “throw” but also its use in this expression, which is so abstractly connected to the action of hurling or tossing that it qualifies as a separate piece of mental data. The expression is, put differently, an idiom — a different “word” in itself, under ways that many linguists analyze how language is stored and produced in the brain. But there are intermediate cases between basic meaning and bona fide idiom. When we say that someone threw up, is that an idiom? Part of the essence of an idiom is that you wouldn’t immediately know its meaning out of context — “chewing the fat,” “being stood up,” “throw that up to me,” etc. In contrast, the relationship of “throw up” to throwing is, upon a bit of reflection, rather obvious; it’s why people also say “hurl” or “upchuck” to mean the same thing. If people are learning English, do we consider their recognition that this is how we routinely refer to that action as having grasped one of our idioms? Not really. “Throw up,” in this sense, is a word that happens to have two parts that we write separately. What we think of as one word with one meaning can in use actually be many, many more words, and not just in the sense of stark and obvious homonyms such as “spring” as a season and “spring” as a coil. This is beautifully illustrated with my favorite example: “pick up.” Its basic meaning is to lift something. But we also pick up our kids from school. Someone might pick someone up at a bar. You pick up a disease, or someone says you’ve picked up the habit of overusing certain salty words. In all those cases, we see a relationship with the “lift” meaning. Few would say that when we talk of picking up our kids, we are tossing in an idiom. Rather, these uses of “pick up” are something more mundane than idioms; they are words of their own. That these are separate words is especially clear when the relationship with lifting gets more abstract: A car picks up speed; a cocktail picks up your spirits; we pick up a sound from far off; we pick up where we left off. Yes, “pick” and “up” are words in their own right, but in this case a combination of the two is the source of what are actually many more words, and this is the case with countless others. Think a bit about the different things “make up” can mean, for example. Yet no one would be accused of overusing the words “pick” or “make,” much less the word “up.” The key is how we use them. And this brings us back to the profanity issue. When we perceive a word as used a lot or too much, it’s often being used to mean multiple things. The casual usage of “like” divides into about four different usages , some having drifted pretty dramatically from its stock definition. The N-word that ends with “er” and the N-word that ends with “a” are, for all intents and purposes (idiom alert! ), different words now, and the latter is also developing into, of all things, new pronouns . What we might hear as a mere matter of yet another F-bomb is actually a vocabular sapling sprouting apace, with branches growing in different directions. As I put it in “ Nine Nasty Words ” (with wording a notch too zesty to print here), the F-word can convey destruction, deception, dismissal, dauntingness and down-to-earthness. Russian speakers seem to get this more readily about profanity than English speakers. There is a tradition among Russians of cherishing its richness; for example, a Russian I am especially fond of has given me dense, sober volumes chronicling and exploring their profanity. Hence, what some bemoan as too much profanity is, to me, the equivalent of the glories of what Russians call mat, or dirty language. As the writer Edward Topol wrote in “Dermo! : The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used,” a nonnative speaker who learns “even one-third of this lexicon can be sure of being the most popular and honored foreigner at any Russian gathering.” Linguists are sometimes thought to be permissive about usage matters, but we recognize how fertile English’s assortment of four-letter words — our mat — and even our unsung words like “pick up” and “make up” are. Think further of “turn out,” including the Black English usage of it I mentioned recently, and this is why the linguist hears a lexical smorgasbord in normal people expressing themselves. Have feedback? Send a note to McWhorterfirstname.lastname@example.org . John McWhorter ( @JohnHMcWhorter ) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “ Lexicon Valley ” and is the author, most recently, of “ Woke Racism : How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.” Advertisement
One Meaning Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
When was One Meaning founded?
One Meaning was founded in 1989.
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One Meaning's headquarters is located at Palo Alto.
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One Meaning's latest funding round is Acquired.
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One Meaning raised a total of $6.37M.
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Investors of One Meaning include Oracle and Matrix Partners.
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