In one of her columns, Barbara Wallraff once exclaimed, “What is it about language that gets people so riled?” Oliver Kamm, in his really quite excellent book Accidence Will Happen, expresses much the same sentiment when he differentiates himself from the pedants—that is from people who fuss over just a few and very uninteresting rules of the English language. He makes the point (in print and in person) that English is what we, quite literally, say it is; not what some grammarian (who often says he knows better than say the Bible) says it ought to be. And I have to tell you at the outset that it is an argument I happen to (for the most part) agree with. However, I can see why this argument should so energize people.
The English language is the framework we use to define our reality. And there is a growing body of evidence that the words we use shape not just our understanding of our reality but of what we should do about it. For example, if you say that economy has stalled, the suggested remedy is to “jump-start it” (think the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act); if on the other hand we say that the exact same economy is ailing, the suggested remedy is a long-term strategy (some examples might include Educate to Innovate or the host of initiatives to put veterans back to work). And indeed, this is not a new discovery. Consider this: classical republicanism was the set of values, the set of references and most importantly for our purposes, the language that virtually all educated people in the eighteenth century used to explain themselves. And as Gordon S. Wood in his essay “The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution,” quotes David Hume as thinking that “even the Tories had been so long obliged to talk ‘in the republican stile’ that they had at length ‘embraced the sentiments as well as the language of their adversaries.’”
Similarly, in her wonderful lectures about the American Revolution, Joanne B. Freeman makes the point that the American Revolution occurred at least in part because the Americans and the British had very different conceptions of what they (and the party opposite) were about. One example she cites is the word “subordinate.” Most Colonists agreed that they were “subordinate” in some way to Parliament but the problem as she quotes Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson remarked was that, “subordination was a word without any precise meaning to it.” So what words mean (or don’t mean) matters. Indeed, these meanings can lead to a revolution.
So, to answer both Barbara Wallraff—words, the meanings we give to words, and how we use those words matter. It matters tremendously. The language we use informs, shapes and transforms our world. So of course people are going to “be riled up” about it.”
We are what we say we are.