Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself (1)

Recently, I found myself in the middle of an online social media battle royale between anonymous posters generally aligned to the q-drop phenomenon (anons) and the lead singer of a rock band. In this instance, the trouble came, as many things often do, from miscommunication, just as Missing Persons highlighted in their classic tune, “Words.”


Specifically, the crux of the problem hinged on several separate elements—word definition, the general public’s assumption about word definition, sentence construction, reading comprehension, and an inability to make fine distinctions.

Moreover, because the word in question is one of those words which often enflames passions, the combustibility of the entire situation was probably inevitable. Now this same issue has been circling around for the past few years on different social media platforms, and nothing has substantially changed in that the lead singer stands by his position and social media posters continue to misconstrue the situation, ultimately defaming the singer in the process.

This time, the mudslinging began when the anons brought the issue into a discussion they and the lead singer were having about a completely unrelated topic. Once the Molotov cocktail was lobbed by the anons, the battle quickly turned into a full-blown war. At one point, I threw my support behind the lead singer. However, one shouldn’t assume that I backed him because I’m fangirling over the singer or the band. In truth, while I do have some of the band’s music, I’ve never seen them live, nor is their music on the playlists I listen to most often. The band makes great music—it’s just not my daily flavor.

So why did I support the singer? Grammar and etymology. For many people, just seeing the word grammar might bring up some deeply repressed grade school memory of comma rules, parts of speech, or even diagramming. Grammar is one of those subjects which isn’t readily loved by the public. It seems so odd, so arbitrary, so confusing. However, English grammar is simplified, at least in comparison to other Indo-European languages. I know, I know, tell that to an earlier version of yourself, desperately trying to understand why you got points taken off a paper for a run-on sentence.

English sentences generally follow this formula: Subject + Verb + Object. In this, the verb is the command-and-control structure of the entire sentence; it tells all the other elements how to behave. It’s usually associated with action as seen in the old kids’ series, Schoolhouse Rock.

Verb—That’s What’s Happening

But, there is one verb which isn’t quite so dynamic and that is the verb “to be.” We use it all the time, however. It’s a real workhorse and unless we think like Bill Clinton, most of us have no problem comprehending any one of its forms.

What is the Definition of “is?”

Another thing we tend to easily understand is negation. Every one of us had a love affair with the word, “no” at some point in our toddler years, or if you’re anything like my daughter, you decided to be extra and say “no” in another language too, but I digress. In English sentences, we tend to use the word, “not” to express negation: A dog is not a cat. I do not like truffles. They are not going to the beach today.

Each one of these sentences is very clear and we know exactly what they mean. But, these are all simple sentences. What happens when we see a more complicated sentence—when the subject isn’t a single word, but a compound or a phrase, is it possible that we might not understand exactly what is being said?

This brings us right back to the situation between the lead singer and the anons. In the debate, the anons put up a graphic of one of the singer’s posts from a different social media platform. This relatively simple sentence caused and has continued to cause a firestorm. Just as I have not revealed the identity of the singer, I’m also not going to directly quote the sentence. My reason for doing so is twofold: 1) I want to strip all emotion out of the situation and 2) I think my analysis is better served this way.

The singer’s sentence is a simple sentence which expresses negation—x is not y. However, the subject isn’t a single word—it has more than one word, and, in fact, is implying a few words, which if those were added in, would make the subject a gerund phrase. Although the sentence is still very basic, the implied gerund phrase might be a little confusing.

And that’s why we go back to our old friend the verb. It’s telling us, unequivocally, “all that stuff which comes before me belongs to the subject of my sentence, and the stuff which comes after me belongs to the object, unless there’s a little word like ‘not’—that one belongs right next to me. It’s attached to me.”

Here is what the sentence would look like with all the words except for the verb “to be” and the word, “not” substituted:

Compound noun phrase + (implied gerund) is not noun [The compound noun phrase is further delineated as article + adverb +adjective + (implied noun) + conjunction + article + adverb +adjective + (implied noun)].

The writer is telling us that the subject is different from the object. Instead of a declarative statement like, “the sky is blue,” the writer is negating that statement and telling us that “the sky is not blue.” Seems clear, right? And, yet, as the situation between the singer and the anons continued for nearly two weeks, this simple construction befuddled people.

If the sentence construction is a simple negation as I’ve just shown it to be, the response by anons and average normie posters appears to be completely overblown. So why did so many people have trouble understanding that x is not y? The answer lies in one little word which occupies the object in the sentence. It’s that single word which triggered a flurry of emotion-based activity. And this is the reason I inserted myself into the dialogue.

You see I knew the precise definition of that word. As such, I knew exactly what the singer was trying to say, and that the rabid posters who defamed him did not know what that word meant. My first attempt at clarifying the situation fell flat. No one wanted to be told that the x in the first part of the sentence was, indeed, not y, and that y was quite specific. Dictionary definitions were provided as were basic Wikipedia entries, but neither would satisfy the mob who increasingly began to resemble a horde of online pitchfork-yielding vigilantes.

“Kill the Beast!”

Moreover, both the dictionary definition from Webster’s and the Wikipedia entry were promptly scorned as both resources had recently made decisions about different words that had the net effect of destroying their credibility. Wikipedia’s actions in altering the accepted definition for the word, “recession,” and then locking editing capability were particularly odious.

So, then I tried a different approach—etymology. Etymology is the study of a word’s origin and its meaning(s) over time. It’s a branch of linguistics and is the bedrock of any credible dictionary. Whenever you look up a word in a dictionary, you usually see a primary meaning followed by one or more variables. That primary meaning is derived from word origin. To understand word origin, you need to know that words are composed of roots, prefixes, and suffixes and that those can be further broken down into individual phonemes.

Think of a phoneme like a cell which binds together with other cells to form a larger structure. For example, the word DOG is composed of two phonemes:  the consonants d & g plus the vowel, o which glues them together.  These letters are merely written approximations for distinct sounds that we make with our mouth, teeth, and tongues. All humans can make a wide variety of sounds; it’s the combination of those sounds into words and the meaning(s) assigned to them which comprises a language. Currently, there are over 7,000 living languages which belong to over 100 distinct language families. 2

The language I am writing, and that you are reading, and which we both most likely speak is English. It belongs to the Germanic language branch which is, in turn, part of a very large group called the Indo-European language family. Scholars have noted the relationship between various branches of the IE family since at least the sixteenth century, but significant scholarly work began in earnest during the eighteenth century. This period also birthed dictionaries as we currently know them. Essentially, there were scholars working on word origin and creating dictionaries around the same time. I stress this to demonstrate both the dedication to identifying word origins and meaning as well as the antiquity of that dedication. In other words, this practice is not strictly contemporary.

There are two excellent late twentieth century books which explore this topic as it relates to the most comprehensive English dictionary ever compiled—the Oxford English Dictionary. Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman reveal the blood, sweat, and toil that the first editor-in-chief, James Murray endured to produce what became one of the most stunning achievements of late Victorian England.

To this day, the OED remains the standard-bearer for dictionaries. It is thorough and exacting, dissecting word origin in the most precise detail and offering as many known variants in meaning as possible. The OED pioneered the practice of discerning the first known example of a word’s entrance into the English lexicon. As such, we can be reasonably certain that when we explore the etymology of a word, we know both its essential meaning as derived from its origin as well as when that word first entered the English lexicon.

Let’s look at the etymology of a few words. For these examples, I will draw from Etymology Online. 3





The first two words come from Old English, the root of the English language. The last two words have either been imported into the language from other IE languages or manufactured from other IE languages (we’ll come back to this in a moment). Clearly this is all very involved and probably a little boring, and you may wonder what any of it has to do with the trouble between the singer and the anons.

Look again at those two loan words: television and pedometer. They are words composed of two separate elements (morphemes) joined together to create a new word. In general, this concept is referred to as compounding. Sometimes this occurs naturally as language develops over time and sometimes, when we need to fashion a word to describe a new object or concept, we borrow elements from other languages, often Latin and Greek, to name that object or explain a concept. Television is a great example of this. Tele + vision (far-off + see) aptly explains the images we see broadcast from a distance. This is exactly how the word the singer used entered the English lexicon.  It was formed from two morphemes to provide an explanation for a concept first noted around the turn of the twentieth century.

In a living language, speakers create new words and add new meanings to existing words all the time. It’s an organic process and while that process can be manipulated by those with ideological motives, we shouldn’t automatically associate that process with a social, political, or cultural agenda. But, that is exactly what happened in the situation between the singer and the anons. Posters, some of whom may have had honest intentions, perceived that the word in question meant only one thing and when presented with factual evidence which proved the opposite, chose to assume that nefarious actors had altered the definition of the word to suit an agenda. Unfortunately, that’s where this issue still stands.

Sadly, I fear that no amount of evidence will convince people of the truth about the word’s origin and meaning, or about the singer’s position and intention. The insults toward the singer are far more veiled now, but the subtext remains the same and that is: “this word only means this and if you don’t agree with us, you’re promoting a heinous thing.” Essentially, the lead singer of the band, Trapt, has been presented for an Orwellian Two-Minutes of Hate—a convenient scapegoat for the masses fueled by righteous anger.

Two Minutes of Hate

Such are the times in which we live. Now, that I’ve revealed the band, I encourage you to see if you can find the comment which caused such a furor. And, since you are also armed with the information needed to research the word yourself, maybe you will understand what Chris Taylor Brown was trying to say . . .

  1. The title of this post is drawn from the title of an amazing poem by the American poet, Wallace Stevens. Although the subject matter of the poem is unrelated to this discussion, I thought that the title applied. Here’s a link to the poem if you care to read it.
  2. Although this information can be found in multiple sources and, as such, could be considered common knowledge, here’s one reference for those who might be interested in learning more.
  3. Although I would prefer to use the OED, it is an expensive subscription-based service. Less expensive versions are available from app stores, but they do not offer the complete etymology and variant meanings that the main OED offers. All university libraries and many large public libraries subscribe to the OED. They may even have hard bound copies in their reference sections. Please feel free to cross-check these etymological samples against the main OED.

Published by Krista S.

Lifelong lover of books and music. Dedicated to sharing and mentoring.

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