“Language is only a means of communication” is a phrase that instantly identifies its utterer as an ignoramus, especially if used to justify sloppy grammar, puny vocabulary and nonexistent style.
He doesn’t know enough about language, doesn’t understand enough about communication and doesn’t have enough taste not to mouth truisms. What such a chap usually means is that language is like money: it has no intrinsic value and can only act as a means of exchange, in this case of bits of information.
This doesn’t quite explain, say, John Donne or William Shakespeare, who obviously treated language as an art form in itself. Yet in a broader sense than truism-obsessed dolts can imagine, language is indeed a means of communication.
It’s variably successful at communicating whatever it is the speaker wishes his audience to know, but it’s invariably unerring in communicating all there is to know about the speaker.
By way of illustration, let’s look at various words describing the room designated for discharging bodily waste. Most such words have one thing in common: they are euphemisms.
But that’s where the similarity ends. (All my subsequent remarks relate mainly to British, which is to say proper, English, although some of them may apply to any Anglophone sphere.)
‘Toilet’, for example, is a euphemism that identifies the speaker as a lower-class person with aspirations to gentility. The word originally comes from the French toilette, which means ‘dressing room’. When used to describe a room where, rather than dressing, people urinate and defecate, it’s a euphemism.
Squeamish to identify the area by its principal function, the speaker has to resort to a euphemism that, due to its French provenance, sounds sophisticated, which is what he tries to be. Hence he identifies his social class as rather low: truly sophisticated people don’t care whether or not they sound as such.
Moreover, one may add, sophisticated people tend to eschew euphemisms wherever possible.
However, thumbing one’s nose at euphemisms, one may have to resort to the reverse snobbery of words like ‘shithouse’ (which is curiously almost a homophone of the French chiotte). If the user of this Anglo-Saxon word isn’t a reverse snob, he’s a lout who’s proud of his loutishness. On balance, I prefer the reverse snob, but neither is appealing.
The problem is that all socially acceptable words for this facility are euphemisms. Take the more socially advanced terms ‘lavatory’ and ‘loo’.
The former means ‘washroom’, and in fact some colonials do pretend that washing or bathing is what that area is for. Hence Americans routinely refer to it as ‘bathroom’, which makes any Englishman worth his bath salt cringe.
Curiously, the British don’t use the word ‘crapper’, which has some currency in the lower reaches of the US.
The British mistakenly associate it with the crude term for faeces, whereas in fact this a case of what linguists call back formation. The crude word comes from the name of a perfectly respectable English gentleman, Thomas Crapper, who in the nineteenth century invented the flushing… whatever you call it.
A shortened version of ‘lavatory’, ‘lav’, betokens one of the better public schools or else the pretence of having attended one. Yet the euphemistic quality remains. And ‘loo’, which occupies a highish rung on the social ladder, reflects the English affection for silly word games.
The facility under discussion was originally called ‘water closet’ (WC for short). The English immediately realised that tagging ‘-loo’ to ‘water-’ gives them delicious memories of rubbing Frenchmen’s nose in the dirt. In due course, ‘loo’ left ‘water’ behind and began a life on its own.
While ‘WC’ is still sometimes used, mostly in pubs, as an inscription above an arrow, ‘closet’ left English and entered Russian as the euphemistic klozet.
What else? I’m always confused by doors identified as ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’. Being manifestly neither a lady nor, less manifestly but just as surely, a gentleman, where am I supposed to go? Mercifully, I’m blessed with a robust bladder and a high tolerance for discomfort.
‘Men’ and ‘Women’ (or M and W for short) is unambiguous linguistically but anachronistic in every other sense. The polarity presupposes the belief that these are the only options in His Creation, which presupposition is being successfully and widely challenged.
A man pretending to be a woman is now entitled to relieve himself in the W facility, whereas a woman pretending to be a man is welcome at the M. So far I’ve been spared, as far as I know, the experience of using a urinal adjacent to one being irrigated by a recently reconstructed woman, but I doubt I’d like it.
We’re rapidly running out of options, without yet finding one that’s unobjectionable or indeed generic. What’s left?
Englishmen of the middle class and higher may at times use the word ‘bog’, which too is a euphemism, with a tinge of reverse snobbery – these days. In the days predating Thomas Crapper’s invention, people used open-air cesspits for this purpose, which must have ended up resembling a putrid swamp.
The word is therefore less euphemistic than the others, but it’s certainly no more mellifluous. One doesn’t expect words for this facility to caress one’s ear, but neither does one wish to have one’s ear grated.
My point is that any of these terms will convey cold information as well as any other. But they all convey so much more – and don’t let me get started on words denoting rooms in the house, different meals and whatnot.
Anyway, I have no time to go there: it’s my turn to cook tea today.