Of frost, martens, and language

hoarfrost
Image via Wikipedia

Language is powerful, and its power is gained greatly from the fact that each word has a meaning, a piece of symbolism all its own. And while there are certainly defined meanings of words, their symbolism is less rigid. For instance, the word “horse” means nothing close to the word “dog,” but the word “horse” may conjure up a Friesian stallion in one mind, a bay show jumper in the next, a white nag in the third, and so on.

Some scholars and laymen have taken language to a scientific extreme, in that they want to very strictly define the use of language and words. If, for instance, a word was in a common use to mean one thing, when its original purpose was even slightly different, they will protest and argue that words cannot have this extra meaning, even if, in common language, they do.

Now, that isn’t to say that, for example, we should allow people to misuse words for an opposing meaning. Let’s look at the word “peruse,” for example: its real meaning is to look through things thoroughly, ie, leave nothing unread or unexamined. Some people, in common language, use this word without understanding its meaning properly, and assume that “peruse” means “to skim over.” In peruse’s case, the word use – no matter how common – is an antonym. It would be the equivalent of calling something fast “slow,” without a hint of sarcasm.

However, take a word like hoary (the very thing that I got into an argument this past week about on this very point). Hoary is an old word that, by its dictionary definition, means old, gray, white, aged. You see an old man’s grizzled beard, and that’s hoary. Several animals have “hoary” in their common name to refer to a coat that is greyish-white.

In the thirteenth century, the root of the word – hoar – also came to apply to a type of frost, known as hoarfrost. Hoar was tacked on to frost to add meaning to it, and writers soon began breaking the word apart, poetically writing of “hoary frost.” The more the word “hoary” was used with “frost” words in context, the more synonymous the words became. While the word is not commonly used in everyday language – its archaic nature is showing – hoary has, over time, become synonymous with frosty. That is to say, “hoary” also means “frosty.”

Strict language scholars will argue until they’re red or blue in the face that “hoary” can’t mean “frosty” because “hoary” means “grayish-white.” This is exactly the reason that the words became so closely associated – it’s easy to think of something “hoary” as being “frosty” and vice verse, because they both have a white-gray appearance. A fairly similar example, though not exact, is the word “sable,” referring to a black color, which originally got its name from the often black-like pelts of the sable, a particular creature hunted for its fur. Though the word originally referred to the animal, the name was transferred, by means of its coat color (which isn’t always black), to the colors of heraldry, and eventually, into a generally common synonym for black.

The problem I find with these strict scholars of language is that they do not recognize the evolving and personal nature of symbolic language; they try to revert it to a form of mathematics. To be so literalist, you must go down to a word’s very core origin, which will, eventually, take you down to the symbol itself, stripped of language entirely until the point that language was created to convey that language. Along that backwards path, you can find many changes, alterations, adjustments, all showing the dynamically changing and evolving nature of language as empowered by symbolism and social context.

No, words can’t just “mean whatever you want them to.” That also denies the symbolic and social nature of language. To say that they can only fit one specific, predetermined definition and not change, however, denies the same.

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