I'm drinking coffee by myself in Richmond Centre, and I'm eavesdropping on the people at the next table. What I hear repeated over and over again is "you know", "I was like" and "I mean", meaningless words that communicate nothing. Yet they seem to constitute the bulk of their conversation.
Is something sinister happening to words? Where have all the meaningful words gone? Whatever the problem, it can't be related to the financial crisis, since words cost nothing. And it can't be an environmental issue, since the supply of words, unlike that of fossil fuels, will never be depleted. Nonetheless, many of us are acting like misers, using the same words and phrases over and over again. Why are we so stingy with words when there are hundreds of thousands to choose from, and all free of charge?
Words make up language, and language is our means of communication. I am going to ask you to stretch your mind for a minute and imagine our language as a garden of words. This garden has been cultivated for centuries. It grows robust fruits and vegetables, which provide substance. It grows colourful flowers, which provide ornament. But, like any other garden, it needs to be tended to keep the weeds at bay. My fear is that a lack of attention, or maybe just plain laziness, has allowed the weeds to grow in strength and number. "I was like", "you know" and "I mean" are some of the insidious weeds invading this garden— a sinister thought.
Sinister is a strong word, but it perfectly conveys my fear. The root of sinister, you probably know, is the Latin word for left, "sinister". Left-handed people were once associated with evil, hence the negative connotation of sinister. The opposite of left is right, "dexter" in Latin, which gave us our English word dextrous. If you say someone is dextrous you mean that he is skilled, sometimes with overtones of clever and occasionally also a smidgeon of cunning. But there is infinitely more cunning in the meaning of the word insidious, which comes from the Latin for deceitful. Insidious pairs well with sinister.
Moving dextrously, I am now going to return to dextrous and mention a useful synonym, adroit, from the French word for right, "droit." And born of adroit is maladroit, the same word prefixed with "mal", the French for bad, which you would apply to an awkward or clumsy person or action, someone or something not dextrous. Maladroitness is the noun, meaning the opposite of dexterity. The French also gave us maladresse, a synonym for maladroitness signifying a lack of tact.
I began by stating that I was eavesdropping. This probably isn't the first time you've heard that curious word. Did you ever wonder where the word came from? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that eavesdrop refers to water dripping from the eaves of a house. Originally, if you were eavesdropping it meant you were standing very close to the house wall (out of the way of the dripping water) for the purpose of overhearing secret talk. The word dates back some 500 years, and eaves still drip, but I now eavesdrop under much more comfortable conditions, sitting in Richmond Centre while enjoying the toasty aroma of my coffee.
This page last updated: September 25, 2011.