Among the many challenges of doing business in the information age is the flexibility of language. New words are coined, repeatedly re-tasked, and ultimately abandoned at an astounding rate. Today’s hot new marketing buzzword is tomorrow’s ridiculously trite cliché. Consider the rising tide of new tech jargon. We invent kewl new terminology every day to categorize the wide array of bold, new, never-before-seen cutting-edge concepts being unleashed upon us. How else would we know what “The Cloud” is? (It’s a bunch of networked computers, btw). Or what a “Meshed VPN” is? (It’s ALSO a bunch of networked computers). Or… how about a “P2P WAN”? (Still MORE networked computers).
Our overtaxed language must also incorporate such enlightening concepts as the evolving social significance of “urbandictionary.com,” or the powerful philosophical stance expressed at “antiduckface.com.” So, there’s always that.
With so much language being reconfigured at such an insane rate, a lot of it gets seriously mangled during the recycling process.
Marketers and corporate wordsmiths trample through this verbal forest snipping and plucking bits of language like flowers from a garden, remaking them into lovely linguistic arrangements; attractive, but oftimes void of substance. Or various bits of cultural doggerel get falsely attributed to some respected source (the Christian Bible, the Analects of Confucius, the Dialogues of Plato, or more modern documents like the U.S. Constitution). Many spurious misattributions to those great works have entered the common pool of public misinformation and now get passed down from generation to generation— false wisdom, masquerading as something it’s not.
Sometimes it happens accidentally, as was the case with Desiderata, Max Ehrmann’s highly-quotable 1927 prose poem (“Go placidly amidst the noise and haste…” etc.). When a fan of the poem reprinted it in a church pamphlet in the 1950’s, the pamphlet included the date the church was founded, 1692. That year was later misinterpreted as the date the poem was written, and for many years most of the general public believed it to be an ancient epigram carved anonymously into the wall of a 17th century Baltimore church.
Some of our most overused current phraseology has an equally dubious pedigree. The words “separation of church and state” do NOT appear in the U.S. Constitution; they were excerpted from a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson. The phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” is neither biblical nor is it constitutional, as is often mistakenly claimed: ironically, those are actually the words of Karl Marx, the father of Marxism (and progenitor of Communism). The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” never appears in the Bible, either; though it did appear in a 1736 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Exercise caution when anyone tosses quotations and aphorisms your way. Some people aren’t overly concerned with making sense; they just want something that sounds good. Once they find it, some won’t hesitate to twist it around to make it seem to say whatever they want.
Always check your sources. If you don’t, it could definitely bite you in the ass later.