What Happened to Burglars?§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: December 13, 2009; revised: April 21, 2018; readers in past month: 578


A burglar is person who breaks into someone’s home. It’s a perfectly good word, albeit one that may be difficult for some people to say. Like many of our English words, it has its roots in French and Latin. Perhaps owing to the difficulty of pronunciation or the foreign sound of the word, a substitute seems to have entered American English: home invaders. While that may be sufficiently accurate, is this where the English language is heading? Will English become simpler and less artistic? I find that irritating and depressing.

In an episode of the television cartoon, The Simpsons, while the main character, Homer is in his house talking to a friend of his, they decide to go somewhere in his car. He tells his friend that he needs to get his car out of his garage. His friend then mocks him and accuses him of being pretentious for using a French word: garage. Homer asks his friend what he calls it. He responds by saying that he calls it the place to keep a car. Along those lines, incidentally, Italians call a garage a box — they actually use that word, the English word, box. Are we evolving to a world in which only English will be spoken and in its simplest form? Will words like burglars and garage be considered prentious?

When I was married and my then wife would talk to me, she often couldn’t think of the words she wanted to say for the objects of her sentences. For instance, she would say, “Hand me the, the, the thing.” or “I need to go to the thing, you know, the thing.” She wasn’t speaking in code. Sometimes she just couldn’t recall words fast enough. I heard her say the word thing so much that for many years I refused to let myself use that catch-all word for anything. Even now I’m timid about using it.

The English language has always accepted words from other languages and as such it has more words than any other language, over a million words compared to a few hundred thousand in French, German, or Italian. This permits us to express ourselves in interesting and charming ways, rich with metaphor and color. While no one has ever learned all of the words of any modern language, most people seem disinterested in knowing the meaning of many words and try to use as few as possible. I’ve read in linguistic books and articles that the average person knows two thousand words and regularly uses only five hundred. To understand that correlation better, while I might tell someone that something is ‘marvelous’ and they understand me, they might concur with my observation and respond by saying, “Yes, it’s great.” This reaction seems to be similar to when a person doesn’t know a foreign language well: they take each word they hear and translate it in their head to the English equivalent and repeat it to themselves. I suspect that for many Americans, broader English is primarily a foreign language. They take all words that they know to be superlatives and translate them back to the word, great in their heads. I really think that for many, they do little more than grunt when they speak.

There may be some people who think that this is a new phenomenon, this seeking out of simple words in a language and discarding of archaic ones, and as a result of television and the internet. According to the Oxford English Dictionary — to which I have a subscription for some inexplicable reason — the word home invader can be first found in print in the New York Times (of all publications) in 1934. The article cited and quoted by the OED says that a home invader was captured and held for the charge of burglary. Incidentally, I’ve heard people argue that the word burglar is not a word and that it’s an erroneous back-formation from the word burglary. I see no evidence of that in the OED. In fact, the OED has examples of the use going back to the seventeenth century. If burglar was originally a back-formation, it has been in use long enough to be a word in its own right.

Considering the number of centuries that burglary and its derivations have survived in the English language, one might argue that the language is safe from homogenization and simplification. In the past, though, written languages were the domains of those who could read and write. The masses only influenced the spoken words. This limited them to their five hundred daily words and two thousand known words. Incidentally, Koko the gorilla learned to understand two thousand words spoken in English and could sign a thousand words — this supports my seemingly offensive claim that most people haven’t evolved far beyond merely grunting. Evidence that the masses only influenced a small number of words can be seen in comparing modern languages to each other. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language from mainland Europe, you may have noticed that longer words are fairly similar to their English equivalent. For instance, the Italian word for intelligent is intelligente. The Italian for introduction is introduzione. Smaller words and words for daily life objects are much more different and there are often no cognates. For instance, the word for to rain in Italian is piovere; for snow it’s neve. Along those lines, to illustrate the charm of English and its method of taking from many languages, the word for hot in Italian is caldo. This is similar to when a liquid is excessively hot, we say it is scalding. One can also compare words between languages within a single country: the word for hat in Tuscan (i.e., Italian) is capello and is cappeddu in Sicilian. They start the same, but end differently for such a simple word. Getting back to my point, the part of language that has historically been in the hands of the intellects remained fairly intact over the centuries and across political lines. Whereas amongst the common people it slurred between countries and even between regions.

Since the literary rate for most countries is in the ninties and is ninty-nine percent of the population for high income countries, common folk now actively read and write. In the past, freedom of the press was a freedom in practicality only available to someone who had access to a press. With the internet, though, any fool is free to publish his opinions and thoughts — for example, me — and thereby cast his choice of words upon the world. Since humans and spoken words don’t tend to last as long as written words, will this mean that much of the language will be buried by the sheer number of simple words that will be writen in web logs? Will future generations reduce the number of words they know from the current meager two-thousand to just their core five-hundred spoken words? It’s a sad thought: it makes one wonder what will become of the works of Shakespeare and wonder how dull novels in the future will be. Will there even be novels if the general public would limit the number of commonly accetable words? Looking at the drivel written in one or two sentences on FaceBook and Twitter, I can imagine that there won’t be novels in the future. Well, actually — now that I’m writing this and musing about it — maybe novels will once again be the packets which will carry and preserve the language over the centuries, only written and read by those who will endure more than idle conversation and a few scribbled lines, those who would use words like, burglar.