Everyday Language Changes


Oh, hello! Welcome back to this column, in which I try to make the study of language interesting to everyone. Today’s topic is “Is it good for language to change?”

First, I’m not talking about stopping it. We just can’t. Imagination if there was a national committee whose job was to create a list of words we’re not allowed to use, which new ones are approved, and what they mean. Some countries and languages actually have such committees. But nobody can enforce such laws when regular people aren’t willing, and they sure ain’t gaining traction with the advent of the Internet.

But rather than discuss theory, I’m just going to show you one tiny change currently underway. It’s a lexical change, which means one word is changing form or meaning. This one is from English, whose phrases tend to run together into one word over time (goodbye space, goodbye hyphen. Something else to think about during this discussion is whether a language is the same between the written and spoken forms).

Our word is “everyday”.

The dictionary says this is an adjective. It means “ordinary”, as in “something you see every day”. By that definition, its proper use would look like “an everyday experience”.

And when I was growing up, that was what it meant. But in the last few years it’s been used differently. Now, more and more, I see signs that promise “great coffee everyday” or “everyday a brand new you”.

“Great coffee ordinary”? “Ordinary a brand new you”?

Something’s changed.

It’s easy to see what happened. The phrase “every day”—that is, “each day”—has just started to collapse. The typical reaction from a good language purist is frustration; after all, it’s such an obvious mistake! But I see it everywhere now! Everybody uses it for everything!

Hold on. “Everywhere”? “Everybody”? “Everything”?

See what I mean?

Yeah, English tends to create new words like that, by joining them. The fancy name for the process is “amalgamation”. And some of its results are now so familiar that we would never think to question them.

But is “everyday” really the same? Let’s look at the anatomy of a compound. I know of four words that successfully merged “every” and something else: everything, everybody, everyone, everywhere.

One typical feature of new words is that they fill a gap in the language, that their place isn’t already blocked by another word. You can see that “everywhere” has that feature. Can you think of a different way to express what it means? Definitely not “every where”. After all, what’s a “where”? And how do you know when you’ve caught ’em all??

But what about “everything”? Would you say it means something other than “every thing”?

Similarly, “everyone” doesn’t just mean “every one”. It means “every human being”. Same with “everybody” and “every body”. The two-word version just doesn’t do the one-word version justice.

But what about “everything”? Would you say it means something other than “every thing”?

Hmm… tough question. I’d say it does, but I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s because “I love every thing” sounds funny. And I’m not sure that “every thing is blue” means everything is blue. Whatever the difference is or isn’t, it’s awfully subtle.

So far, the new “everyday” doesn’t have that feature. So far it’s being used to mean the same thing as “every day”. But you can never predict in what new clever—or stupid—or so stupid it’s brilliant—way language will change.

“Every” itself first appeared about 800 years ago when people started running the expression “ever each” together—an expression that just meant “each”, but had a bit more emphasis. And before it solidified as “every”, Chaucer himself used the half-formed “everich”. Within about a hundred years all four of the above compounds had been formed.

How did this happen? People probably just used them a lot. If nobody explicitly tells the children of tomorrow that “everyday is a good day” is a mistake, they’ll assume it’s normal. If you ask them whether it means the same thing as “every day”, a few of them might scratch their heads and say, “Hmm… tough question.”

And if it acquires even a subtle difference in meaning, it’ll have a foothold. In fifty years the language might have provided itself with a genuinely new word. And if it justified itself by doing something no word had done before, would it be so bad?

I’m a copy editor, and my whole job consists of keeping this paper’s language up to a certain standard. I still think of it as a mistake. No way would I let “everyday is a good day” through.

But I’m also a linguist, and we’re taught first and foremost to coolly observe language without judging what’s right or wrong. I’m well aware that today’s standard is just yesterday’s innovation.

So would it be so bad?

No, it probably wouldn’t.

On the other hand, maybe “everyday” will just fizzle and die. After all, the 19th-century coinages “everywhen” or “everyhow” didn’t catch on. Maybe some changes really are just kind of dumb.

But “everyday”? Only time will tell.