Old man yells at cloud

:: language

Bruce Schneier is cross that ‘crypto’ no longer means what he wants it to mean.

Here’s the thing: words in a natural language mean what the users of that language want them to mean. God did not hand down English on stone tablets on the top of a mountain to you, or to anyone: a very large number of people invented it, all on their own.

And the meanings of the words in a language as well as its grammar can and do change over time and from place to place. Do you really think you understand Shakespeare’s English? Because you probably do not understand it very well. And if you think you understand Chaucer’s English either you are a specialist or you are very confused.

No number of ex-cathedra pronouncements that ‘in English this word means that’ and ‘in English this bit of grammar is OK and this bit is not’ is going to make those things be true unless enough people agree with you. And what is true here and today may not be true there and tomorrow.

Once ‘flux’ meant something that you died from if you were unlucky: now it does not mean that. Today it means, in physics, the flow of some quantity across some area and in more general usage a state of change1. Somewhere someone is cross about that change in meaning.

Once ‘hacker’ meant someone who spent long hours writing clever programs. Now it does not mean that. The person writing this comment is annoyed about that change in meaning.

Once there was a language (spoken by people who somehow managed to bargain enjoying watching other people getting eaten by wild animals into being regarded as the civilization we should all aspire to — perhaps that is what some of us aspire to) in which infinitives did not have particles. Many hundreds of years later fools vomit forth endless diatribes about how this means certain constructs are not allowed in a language (not a descendant of that ancient language, not even very closely related to it) which does.

Well, OK, why am I expending all this effort on an old man yelling at a cloud? He’s harmless, right, if foolish? No, he’s not harmless. Yes, he is foolish, but people who seek to control the language spoken by others — and always to control it in such a way that the language they use is correct and the language various other groups use is incorrect — are not harmless, not even slightly.

  1. And those meaninngs are not the same because the language of physics is not the same language as English.