Are we ‘relating’ yet? Words’ meanings continue to evolve
by Roger Hines
April 14, 2013 12:00 AM | 1069 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
If there is anything more interesting than the history of words, it is watching words as they come and go and change meaning in one’s own lifetime.

The word “rhetoric” comes to mind. Until maybe thirty years ago, rhetoric meant “the art of effective speaking and writing.” Today, to the general population, it means hot air: “That was just a lot of rhetoric.” Sad, but truth is words can lose their good reputation just as people can. We cannot explain such language change; we can only observe it.

Word history is called etymology, and no word has a more interesting etymology than “bedlam.” The word is actually “Bethlem” which is a clipped form of “Bethlehem.” In the 17th century near London was an institution called St. Mary of Bethlehem, a hospital much like what Americans once referred to as insane asylums. The British habit of swallowing syllables turned Bethlehem into Beth’lem.

Soon “bethlem” came to be associated with the noise and clamor emanating from the asylum. But how did the “-th” become the “-d” in “bedlam”? There’s no answer for that. Language is all about custom and chance, never logic.

While the etymology and use of some words is interesting, the use of others can be downright annoying. Currently, one of the most annoying words to me is “relationship.” My parents never used, probably never knew the word, but they knew “marriage,” “family” and “faithfulness.” They also knew the words “husband” and “wife.”

Indeed, what does the expression “in a relationship” mean? The answer is it means a thousand things to a thousand people. It is an empty, overused phrase, void of content and import. It has become a cover expression for anything one wants to cover. As Alice in Wonderland put it, “Call a cabbage a king …” and author Lewis Carroll’s implication was that a cabbage is not a king. Today, however, we can call anything a “relationship” simply because we may do so, and because somebody will beam and say, “Awww!”

It seems that if we want to be clear and understood, we use clear, understandable words... If we want to be vague — or noncommittal — we use weasel words like “relationship.”

Trying to apply the word as we are now applying it, I can say that my first memorable and meaningful relationship was with a dog when I was 9. Prince was shipped from Trieste, Italy by an older brother, Paul. While in Trieste with the Army, Paul married an incredible Italian woman, Antonia Krevitan, and brought her to the states.

Prince, a German Shepherd that looked exactly like Rin Tin Tin, arrived a few weeks later. Let me inject that Paul and his Italian bride had a wonderful relationship.

For four years I kept and cared for Prince while Paul circled the globe for Uncle Sam. When he finally settled down in Alabama, he took Prince away. That action marred my relationship with my brother until I accepted that my relationship with Prince was meant to be temporary. Paul had told me it would be. Still, at age 12, because of a dog, I learned that if I ever had any more relationships, I’d want them to be permanent. My temporary one was too painful.

When my brother ended my relationship with Prince, I found solace in our 13 cats, with whom I also had wonderful relationships. Seriously, 13, each with a name. In those days even the dearest of pets were not allowed in the house. Had I even asked for permission to take any of the cats inside, it would have affected my relationship with my mother.

On second thought, since we really didn’t have relationships back then, maybe I should have asked my mother’s permission. I mean, was there any relationship to worry about?

Some relationships lead to violence. I almost did violence to a Wal-Mart lawnmower with which I had a terrific relationship until one day it refused to return the love. Still new, it just wouldn’t crank. Observing a huge dent on the side of the engine, I wondered if a Wal-Mart associate had not dropped something on the engine and damaged it.

Whatever, the entire episode soured my relationship with Wal-Mart, though for only a while. Watching Wal-Mart associates relate so well to customers and to each other smoothed out that relationship.

Fresh out of college, I had a relationship with a brand new Plymouth Belvedere I: solid white, with tires, seats, a steering wheel and natural air. Every relater should love his relate-ee the way I loved that Belvedere I. It was the sweetest of relationships.

It went south, all forgotten, however, when I came into a relationship with a Tennessee country girl. We married and have been relating for over four decades.

Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.

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