If you wanted to invent a form of communication guaranteed to make sure people misunderstand each other, you couldn’t do better than to invent words.
If you wanted to invent a form of communication guaranteed to make sure people misunderstand each other, you couldn’t do better than to invent words. I’ve got a love / hate relationship with words. Anyone who has ever tried to have a conversation with me knows how inarticulate I can be, struggling to find the right spoken word. (Put me in front of a keyboard, or put a pen in my hand, and I’m much more comfortable. My brain thinks better in text than verbally. If I could write all my speech, I’d be a much better conversationalist.) Incidentally, after Beethoven went deaf, he used to keep a notebook handy for people to write their comments and questions to him on. Because he could still speak, he could just answer verbally. Many of those notebooks still exist in museums. It’s odd to see the literally literal half of a conversation someone had over 200 years ago. Based on the other person’s answers, we have to use a bit of detective work and imagination to piece together what Beethoven’s responses might have been. Do you know who wrote the very first grammar and spelling textbook? No, it wasn’t a sadistic school teacher. It was... drumroll... a committee of lawyers. But believe it or not, their intentions were good. Back in England in the early 1600s, word usage was anything goes. You could write any way you wanted, and if you could make yourself understood, you were fine. However, the courts were clogged with merchants and nobility all suing each other blind over how their legally binding contracts were written. In a casual letter to a friend, there’s a certain amount of fudge factor. You can get away with a certain amount of sloppiness. But in a legal contract, the spelling of a word, or the placement of a comma, can have real world consequences. If you’re a grocer in 1622 and you’re ordering supplies, it matters that you and your supplier both understand the difference between “sew” and “sow.” It’s the difference between whether you get a shipment of thimbles or plows. Finally, a group of weary lawyers got together and came up with a common grammar and spelling guide in an attempt to cut down on the confusion and unnecessary lawsuits. Their textbook actually helped, but it also created opportunities for bad puns and other wordplay. Once you’ve got rules, it’s fun to twist them. The flaws in words and grammar are what make them fun. Children figure that out whenever the conjunction “but” is used in a sentence. Four year olds are the most literal people on Earth. Don’t make puns around a four year old. To them, every statement is either God’s own truth, or a vicious, calculated lie. At their best, words can only suggest the whole truth, leaving your mind to fill in the other 99 percent the words leave out.