Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Forever Young

English is a living language. Not living in the sense that it may one day become self-aware and attack the human race, living because it is constantly evolving, growing, and mutating - much like a cancer cell.

Due to its living nature, it’s impossible to say with any real authority what is or isn’t correct English. Grammar snobs argue over things like whether a word beginning with the letter “h” should be preceded by the article “a” or “an”, whether one should say “toward” or “towards”, and so on.

Unfortunately, for those with a propensity toward(s) grammar snobbery, the fact is; since there is no governing body for the language, the correctness of any given part of English is almost entirely a matter of opinion. It could be argued that the only incorrect English is that which does not correctly convey the intent of a communicator to his English-speaking audience. The phrase, “This food ain’t got no salt on it” may make many an English major cringe, but no English speaking person can truthfully claim ignorance as to the intent behind the phrase. Sure, there’s a double negative and a contraction that will keep you out of heaven if you say it too many times, but we are still able to clearly understand that the speaker is voicing concern about a sodium deficit in his victuals.

But, I’m tangenticating. My thoughts today aren’t actually about English grammar at all. They are about English words. The evolution of the words we use intrigues me. For instance, the “world wide web” is thus called because of the logical similarity between interconnected computers and the many intertwined points of a spider web. From this relatively new definition for the word, “web”, we already have derivatives. People started using the “web” as a medium to record and publish “logs” of their lives, but apparently the term “web log” was too much of a mouthful. Someone decided to truncate it and, voila!, “blog” popped into existence. A completely new word derived from the bastardized definition of a very old word.

Having been in the computer industry for over a decade, I could write page after horrifically boring page about new words and acronyms that owe their existence to modern technology. But, before you start clawing your own eyes out, rest assured - I’m not going to.

Rather, I’d like to point out a couple of words whose definitions have evolved in a manner that you may not be aware of; namely the words, “forever” and “never”.

There was a time when the word “forever” literally meant “for ever” or “without end”. As its counterpart, was “never” - which was originally a contraction for the words “not ever”. Unbeknownst to most English speakers, though, both of these words have evolved considerably.

Forever no longer represents an infinite amount of time. As of this writing, forever is about 16 days. This is based on the average length of time it takes for something to cease after it has been declared to last forever. A generation ago, forever was holding steady at approximately 39 months, but in recent years its value has dropped radically. This is primarily due to the advent of millions of personal computers which all take “forever” to boot.

Interestingly, never is much less volatile than forever. Never’s current average length is nearly 18 years. The disparity in values between forever and never can be attributed to the context in which each of these words is typically used. Forever is generally used to denote the presence of something, while never is more often used to describe a thing’s absence. For example, when a shopper says, “I’ve been in this checkout line forever”, he is referring to how long the phenomenon of standing idly in a line has been present in his life – which, in actuality, is probably about two minutes. Conversely, when a 90 year old woman says, “I’ve never been to Paris”, she is referring to how long the phenomenon of being in Paris has been absent from her life – in this case 90 years. In other words, people use “forever” when they are talking about how long something which already exists will continue to exist, and “never” when referring to something that does not yet exist. Obviously, it’s quite easy to speak with conviction when you’re talking about nothing, ergo “never” has a lifespan that nearly allows it to buy cigarettes.

Of course there are exceptions on both sides. Never would be even longer if not for kids whose birthdays are “never” going to get here. Forever might not last five minutes if it didn’t have the help of comets that have been circling the solar system “forever”. As a general rule though, you should always take “never” more seriously than “forever” (please note that the current value of “always” is 57 times out of 100).

So if your boyfriend tells you that he’s going to love you “forever”, don’t plan an elaborate party for his next birthday. However, if he swears that he’ll “never” stop loving you, it may be time to brush up on your state’s restraining order laws.