I cheerfully greeted the patient in the wheelchair with a big smile as the admitting department employee pushed him into his assigned room. Opening the bed, I helped the man up from the chair before taking his vitals and recording his personal belongings.
Just as I completed the nursing assistant portion of his admission, the dietician walked into the room. The patient grumbled, “This place feels like a refrigerator. Could you give me a blanket? I’m cold.” Noting several other supplies that would be needed, I left the room.
A few moments later I returned with a blanket, gown and a pitcher of water. Opening the blanket to wrap around the patient, I heard the dietician ask, “Please tell me about your diet.”
The patient reacted to the request as if gasoline to open flame. His face turned red and he shouted angerly, “I’m not on a diet, and you’re not going to shove some stupid a—-diet down my throat!”
Calmly looking up from her clipboard, the dietician wearily explained, “What I want to know is what types of foods you normally eat every day.” Her unruffled demeanor made me want to giggle. Undoubtedly, she’d experienced this conflict in word definition before.
I often think back to that misunderstanding between the patient and dietician when I learn a new word or look up an old word and discover it has additional archaic, sometimes conflicting meanings.
All languages change over time, not just American English. Words change in pronunciation, in grammatical order and in meaning. New words are added, brought about by technology and social movements. Think of the words, computing, internet, texting, tweeting and compact disks. These and many other words did not exist when I was in high school, nor for many years after. Some of them are already falling into obscurity or being replaced with abbreviations and acronyms.
Changes in language used to accepted very slowly. Before adding a new word to the Oxford English dictionary, the word must be widely used by a variety of publications and media. The Oxford has 250 lexicographers and editors who work full time researching new words. If a word is used for only a short time and merely as jargon, it fails to make the grade.
Most Americans welcome words from other languages with open arms. Not all countries are as open to using borrowed words. Jessica Reed, a French journalist explained in an article for The Guardian, “Some French political figures and academics in Québéc have more or less declared a fatwa against English words.”
Opponents point out that a language is not a monument. Languages are living, breathing systems, tools for communication. To be effective, they need to constantly evolve. To survive, language must mutate, stretch itself, and shed its old skin.
I’ve been told that English is one of the hardest languages to learn because of the many words that sound alike but are spelled differently and the many words that have multiple meanings. Keeping up with changes is constant. For example, originally a window was merely a clear glass to look through. As computers upgraded in the later part of the twentieth century, an operating system called Windows opens files on a monitor screen.
When words have more than one meaning, sometimes one meaning gains more recognition than the other. The word ejaculation is one of these words. Most people today only know the word as a sexual function some people wouldn’t say in polite company. Seventy years ago, people used ejaculation to describe a sudden, short exclamation or prayer.
Although the word ‘diet’ has two common meanings, the man in the hospital only knew the word to describe limiting the amount of food to be eaten, and he knew one thing for sure, he didn’t want to be denied food when the food trays came around.