Back in the Stone Age of 1985, I watched a Twilight Zone episode that frightened the daylights out of me. In this episode, “Wordplay,” Bill, a medical supply salesman, stays up late to memorize a new product catalog full of new and unfamiliar items and terms. When he wakes up the next morning, his world has shifted as the meaning of words has changed. What once meant “lunch” now means “dinosaur.” And anniversary meant “throw rug.” The chaos accelerates until at the end of the show, Bill must relearn the language spoken around him by using a children’s alphabet book. The primer being with the picture of a dog paired with the word “Wednesday.”
Of course, that’s fantasy—can you imagine if this happened in real life? There would be chaos and division all around us if words that formerly held a common meaning shared among a variety of people took on new and different meanings without forewarning. People could no longer hold down jobs or speak a word they were confident about without wondering what others really heard. Or understood.