Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I Get It

My high school English teacher hated the word “get”. Absolutely despised it.

She actually forbade us from using it in written work that we turned it. Her contention was there is always a better word that can be used in its place. ”Get” is the word with a million synonyms and no one meaning peculiar to itself.

If “get” were a person, it would have a roomful of friends, but very low self-esteem. Lots of companionship, but no real meaning in life. A sad situation, indeed.

Okay, I get it.

The dictionary lists 38 definitions of “get” as a transitive verb (which require an object), 11 definitions as an intransitive verb (which do not allow an object), and at least 62 distinct variations of its use as an auxiliary verb (when used in conjunction with another verb).

Where did the word come from? We have the Vikings to blame for that.

You see, according to everybody’s favorite lexicographer, Kory Stamper, English is a mongrel of a language. English words come from a variety of peoples, cultures, and languages. Nothing we say is really native to English itself.

The English word “get” comes from the Old Norse “geta”, which means, uhm, “to get”. (Nobody accused them of being original!)

As often happens in linguistic history, the word evolved into an all-purpose verb. It was short, simple, and to the point. If you had a problem conveying exactly what you meant, you could use this generic word and your audience would “get” it.

Thus, dozens of definitions have been attached to “get”, many of which have something to do with obtaining, or retrieving, or receiving something (get an “A”, get a second helping).

I’m particularly fond of the language’s tendency to attach “get” to some other verb to enhance the meaning (get up, get down, get out, get ahead).

In the process, “get” has become the fifth most-used verb in the English language.

And I’m jealous that the humble word “get” got something that I never did get: its own Wikipedia article.

It may not be the most elegant word in English. It doesn’t have flourishing French roots like “croissant” or “façade”. It doesn’t have the comical nature of Spanish words like “mosquito” or “piñata”. And it doesn’t have an aboriginal flavor of “kangaroo” or “boomerang”.

“Get” is a word like no other. A word that means what it needs to mean when it needs to mean it. A versatile, useful, flexible word. A word that trips off the tongue and lands squarely in the appropriate context to be understood by all.

It’s mildly ambiguous, yet always appropriate. On its best days, English teachers label its usage as “informal”. At worst, it’s banned.

But it’s our word, and it ain’t going anywhere soon. (Yeah, more on that word on another date...)

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