As I move through my day, I speak, read and write words. While I would like to claim that I always think very carefully about my word usage, I can’t. When I am writing, I am more intentional, but in speaking I am a little more haphazard. Things are “lovely” and “wonderful” or “terrible” and “awful”– my go-to descriptions of things good or bad.
Louis CK has a bit in his stand-up DVD, Hilarious, that explores the upsetting (yet entertaining) nature of this phenomenon: the gradual deterioration of language as we culturally glom on to this word or that word and completely wear it out. He laments the loss of words like amazing, genius and hilarious. According to Louis CK, hilarious used to mean “so funny that you almost went insane” or “so funny that it almost ruined your life”, but now is used to describe fairly mundane scenarios. He accurately points out that one could say “that happened” the way some people say “that’s hilarious” and it would mean the same thing. I love Louis CK.
It doesn’t bother me quite like it bothers him to hear words’ misuse. When I am bothered is when I try to later use the word in its true meaning and I have to tack on the word truly or to otherwise somehow clarify that I actually mean it.
Recently, a friend experienced a painful loss that I unfortunately have had my own experience with. When I heard, I wanted to express how I felt, but the words fell short, as they usually do. “Sympathy” was not quite right, nor was “I’m sorry”. And “my condolences” in its Hallmark usage has been reduced to mean “I’m sorry”. Seeing someone experience deep grief and sadness with no clear course of action is uncomfortable for us and so culturally we are handed words to use so that we don’t have to think too much about it.
Offering condolences is so much more than sorries and sympathies, though. Condolence comes from the Latin, condolere, which is a verb that means “to suffer together”. The message at the heart of this one simple word, that we are not alone in our suffering, has been lost. This in itself is a tragedy. And the thing is, anyone who has experienced suffering (i.e. everyone) knows that there is some comfort in understanding that we do suffer together. Not that there is a good way to suffer, but the best way is with others. Put that on a greeting card.
There are a number of words that have been lost to misuse. For example, the words awesome, fantastic, incredible, radical and terrific have all come to mean really, really good. I blame the makers of elementary school teachers’ stickers and stamps. Fantastic means that it exists only in imagination; terrific actually means frightening; radical has evolved to mean many things, but actually it originated in the idea of returning to roots or origins (how appropriate!). None of them meant good or favorable in their original form. This is a loss because what word can I now use to describe your nightmares of being carried away by flying ligers?
So, please, let’s give weight back to our words; they are becoming too thin. Think about them, learn about them, use them well. They are all we have.