A college English professor, disappointed by something I had written about Hemingway’s “In Our Time,” commented under a D+, “Make every word count, a sentence should bleed if you break.”
I was somewhat traumatized and burned the midnight oil before delivering my next article, “The Role of the ‘ing’ in Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry'”.
“An interesting, yet powerful, case for ing, B,” he commented. I had improved somewhat, it seemed, so I did not give up the quest for greater clarity.
Looking back, I think my teacher was pedantically harsh, but his rigor left me with an abiding interest in how the smallest element of language can affect meaning and imply a future, an evolving tool. Words, phrases, and even prefixes that are part of our common vocabulary can prepare us to accept new versions of our complex humanity.
The prefix “trans-” is an example with profound psychological, social and political implications. According to my well-worn dictionary from Webster’s College, “trans-” is defined, among other nuances, as: “a prefix meaning through, complete change, going beyond”.
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These meanings date back to the age of Shakespeare (1550-1620). Our language is adept at preserving the past even as it absorbs new aspects of the present and prepares us for a more inclusive future.
Our living language is often ahead of prejudicial attitudes about accepting difficult social transformations. This is the case of “transgender”, a word which only officially entered American dictionaries in 1990-95. It has now turned into an adjective – a “trans” person, a form of moral linguistic evolution.
It shows how quickly our language can “change” and take us “beyond” our usual ways of talking about our experience as individuals and members of a particular culture. The “trans-‘” prefix has bided its time, waiting to become an adjective, encouraging us to open our minds to futuristic visions of human nature.
Editors of good dictionaries don’t judge what we say; they pay attention to current usage, to what is actually written and said in our time. This impartial openness to our language allows us to accept each other more easily, despite our differences.
America is currently going through many transformations: gender, demographic, technological, ethnic, political, and “racial” identities (a word that now needs to be redefined because there is no genetic marker for “white” or “black”). ).
We are at the crossroads. Many Americans are unhappy with our country’s transitional state. Some have broken the law to suppress the story; some reject the forward-looking language of our founding documents, “We the people…”
Updated and current language can help us overcome the destructive defenses of an outdated past.
Howard Wolf, of Amherst, holds a Ph.D. in English.