When Words Die

What happens to that slice of experience left behind when the meaning of words changes?

1960 records

Technology has been responsible for a completely new vocabulary as well as widening the meaning of many words already in use (consider the meaning of record in 1200, 1600, 1900 and 2000.)

But beyond the world of technology and its influence, inevitable shifts in the semantic territory covered by any common word pass without comment, and much of our human experience is consequently re-configured.

We are about to lose the difference between Envy and Jealousy, despite the efforts of various dictionaries and Wikipedia to maintain the two words’ separate identities.

  • Jealousy refers to feelings of potential loss of things of value. “I guard my time jealously.”
  • Envy is a resentful emotion driven by a perceived inequality.  “I envy you your position.”

Othello listens to Iago

How else to explain Iago’s advice to Othello in Act 3 Scene 3? –

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”

Othello is pressing Iago for his impressions of Michael Cassio, who Othello worries is having an affair with his new wife. Iago’s evasive and masterfully ambiguous response advises Othello not to hold on to his wife too closely and to let go of any suspicions of Cassio.

A recent exchange on Facebook shows how we are losing a slice of our English experiential pie –

  • “Fab new shoes!”
  • “Jealous!”

Of course, “Jealous!” here means “Envious!” but the envy/jealousy territories have merged, and to misunderstand would be churlish. Words and meanings evolve, territories change.

Here is a whole website based on envy, called The Jealous Curator. http://www.thejealouscurator.com/blog/2012/08/20/im-jealous-of-holly-farrells-shoes/

Seems like the battle is over, and envy has been subsumed into jealousy.

Iago’s admonition to ‘beware of jealousy” is not for Othello to steer clear of envy but to avoid holding things and people too tightly. Future students of Shakespeare might assume Othello’s murderous rage stems from envy and might miss his possessiveness, but this would make him a shallower character, less tragic, and less fully human.

When words shrink, people get smaller.

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