I called a university colleague “cavalier.” It was 2006 and the Kansas Senate had entered the sex education debate with SB 492 to take away protection from obscenity from not only K-12 teachers but also university teachers. A major state newspaper interviewed me and I referred to a colleague at another university as “cavalier” for not teaching the topic in a more serious manner. The next day, my interview was on the first page, above the fold.
I knew what I meant by “cavalier” but I felt that I had better check the dictionary in case it had other meanings. I reached over to my old Webster’s dictionary that I had used since high school in the early 1960s.
Definition number one for “cavalier” was one word: “gay.”
Good grief! I had called my colleague “gay.”
But that was a 1960's definition. In the 1960's, the Flintstone’s cartoon was signing off with the theme song: “we’ll have a gay old time.” And Natalie Wood was singing in the movie West Side Story about how she was “...pretty, and witty, and gay.”
Yes, words change their meaning. And fairly rapidly too. By 2006, modern dictionaries defined “cavalier” as: easy and lighthearted, frivolous, or disregarding the feelings of others. And that is what my readers in 2006 now understood by the word “cavalier.”
I sighed with relief.
As young students learning to write in classroom, we often come to think of the dictionary as a law book. Official meanings were inscribed in ink (if not chiseled in stone), forever unchanging and legally binding. In reality, dictionaries are history books that record our changing usage of words as society evolves. And this change can occur fast, as it did with “gay.”
Today, some folks still regard words as unchanging and immutable. They think words exist separate from the reality they represent and are independent of the experiences of the speaker and listener. We see two people arguing past each other, each applying different meanings to the same words, and we dismiss it as “just a matter of semantics.”
But semantics, the study of the meaning of words, is a very important to understand.
New terminology arises from the technology in our kids hands and forms a generational gap overnight. Many youngsters no longer know that birds were the original critters to “tweet.” “Text” is now a verb. Technology has also brought us the “selfie” and the “bitcoin.” Grandma may not know what these mean if she is “binge-watching” her old favorites on streaming-on-demand TV.
Business gave us new terms overnight when “subprime” loans required a “bailout.” Research shows that a preschool child picks up 20 words each day without studying. It is becoming obvious that we continue this process of learning new words and modifying meanings throughout life.
Law tackles the change in words by incorporating long and tedious definitions in statutes and also using two terms, as in “cease and desist” to cover all of the possible variations in intent.
Science is a little closer to the lawbook model, requiring more careful definition of terms. Nevertheless, science textbooks continually coin more new technical terms, exceeding the vocabulary found in foreign language textbooks. SARS and MERS and Ebola are just a few of the recent terms that joined our vocabulary. And for Kansans, when astronomers demoted Pluto from a major planet (Kansan Clyde Tombaugh was the only American discoverer of a planet), we had been “plutoed.” In spite of all of these changes, whenever you attend a meeting where the speaker takes time at the beginning to very carefully define his or her terms, you are usually going to hear a very well-reasoned presentation.
Back to my original dilemma where I had called the university colleague cavalier, and my old dictionary defined it as gay, I decided to inform my institutional boss of the episode. She e-mailed me back: “It has been a tough day and I needed that laugh. But yes, meanings do change.”