English, with its overwhelmingly large vocabulary, presents problems not only for language learners but for native speakers as well. A report this morning on the BBC World Service illustrated the problem when a reporter misused the word interior instead of internal. These two words are not only close synonyms but are morphologically closely related. In speaking of the shooting in Kuala Lumpur of a Hamas operative, the reporter referred the event to “an interior matter” instead of “an internal matter” of the organization.
Such episodic mistakes, even by native speakers, are not rare, and normally the speaker making such an error immediately corrects it, typically by saying something like “I mean/meant” and supplying the correct word. Errare humanum est.
One rarely pays attention to the linguistic tokens of habitual repartee, but given the growth in the use of such items among younger speakers of American English in particular, perhaps they deserve a post on this blog.
No matter how innovative the content of what is being said, in conversation––especially between two people––there are always utterly habitual elements that are purely phatic and assure each interlocutor of the validity of what has just been uttered. Such is clearly the role ejaculations like “Fantastic!” or “Absolutely” play in conversation. A visit today by Y-H-B to his favorite lunch spot n Manhattan (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) included several exchanges between customer and waiter, in which the waiter, a young man named Zack, constantly uttered these words, meant to give tacit approval of the customer’s choice of dishes and drinks.
But one does not need the setting of a restaurant meal to be convinced that people habitually respond in conversation with linguistic items that are used solely to keep the interlocutors informed that what they are saying to each other is being evaluated––either positively or negatively––no matter what the content of their utterances.
In terms of this rather abstract characterization of meaning, the immediately preceding post can be amplified by numerous examples, and not just by paronomastic ones like “done and dusted” (British English, a phrase heard constantly on the BBC World Service, for instance). Any idiom that has arisen long enough ago to have lost any real connection with the objective context of its initial coinage will conform to the idea that meaning is arbitrary in the round. Such is the case of the phrase “hat trick,” which probably arose originally in association with the British game of cricket (although the OED Online disputes this etymology) and meant ‘taking three wickets with three consecutive deliveries’ but was then extended to other games (like hockey and soccer) to mean any combination of three gains, whence its ultimate extension to any combination of three successful actions. The meaning of ‘hat trick’ now has no connection with its etymology and must be learned by speakers in order to be used correctly in contemporary English. As with so much of the vocabulary of natural languages, this is a typical example of the arbitrariness of meaning.