Quick Hit: The Ability to Can

There’s a fine line between mangling one’s own language and being part of its evolution and improvement. Of course, if it’s us (whoever “us” might be), it’s definitely the latter.

“I have lost all ability to can.” ….  So I explained the phrase and he seemed fairly disgusted in a what-are-these-people-doing-to-our-language way. My first instinct was to agree with him, until I realized: Isn’t this what language is supposed to do? Isn’t it supposed to flex and shape itself to convey what we mean to say as directly and efficiently as possible?

This is a nice article discussing how the interwebs may be contributing to that evolution and improvement. I was left wondering how exactly the author, and indeed I, think that line might be defined.

Categories: language

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6 replies

  1. Just this example – “The ability to can” is an awkward phrase imo and no improvement on any other way to say one’s lost optimism, or whatever it’s supposed to mean.
    Also canning means putting food in cans, so using this phrase sounds like someone who’s lost the knack of food preservation. Or something.

  2. Also canning means putting food in cans, so using this phrase sounds like someone who’s lost the knack of food preservation. Or something.

    Well, yes, that’s what the article points out. But gay also means happy, and a ball can refer to a bouncy thing or a dance (or several other things). Context is everything. Online, I’m going to read it as a melodramatic & slightly silly way of saying “I can’t even”, if someone said it to me at the supermarket, I’m probably going to decide that’s why they’re buying tinned tomatoes.
    In the former case, it conveys the extra meanings of hyperbole and silliness – fairly effectively for mine. Having said that, I can’t imagine it becoming a genuine idiom, it gets its effectiveness from playing with one.

  3. If they’re using it in an over-the-top way, fine – I hope it doesn’t become an idiom, though.
    I’m well aware of words gaining and losing meanings; it’s verbs and nouns swapping around that usually bugs me. Gay also meant a prostitute in 19th century slang.

  4. In context (and in particular, in the context of Tumblr, where the phrase originated) “I have lost all ability to can” is a humorously formal and marked exaggeration of “I can’t even – !”. “I can’t even – !” itself is basically an expression of the sort of hand-waving, highly agitated incoherence to which a person may be reduced by, for example, extreme grammatical incorrectness… (or troll logic, or MRA logic, or whatever else it is that’s busy knocking you into SIWOTI mode).
    So basically, it’s a funny and silly way of pointing out whatever it is you’re responding to has reduced you to complete and utter agitated incoherence (by stating the problem in what seems, on the face of it, to be a calm, coherent and grammatically reasonable statement). It probably makes more sense if you’re aware of and comfortable with the sort of “playing with language” humour which used to be a distinguishing mark of geeky/hacker circles, and which has now spread to the wider internet – basically at least part of the original joke is likely to be that the person who created the meme in the first place is highly articulate and quite able to explain precisely what annoyed them in the first place.

  5. That said, the article itself is an interesting examination of the way we’re altering language to suit our circumstances on social media. One of the other examples given is the sort of “aldkseitouna;dkalgjenw;wo;qgt4we3″ text – where a line of gibberish basically stands in for “this is so wonderful[1] that it has completely sidelined my verbal processing capabilities; please imagine me standing here gabbling in awed incoherence while I get my brain back online” – the image being implied is that while the brain is offline, the hands are moving on the keyboard but making no sense whatsoever. It’s a neat combination of the visual and the textual – and a lot of online stuff tends to be going that way, implying things about the writer for the reader to visualise.
    [1] This particular ‘net tic is, as far as I’ve seen, almost always used in cases of “this is great”. “This is terrible” tends to start at “I can’t even -!” or *headsmash* and move along from there at a very rapid pace.

  6. I particularly liked the Orwell quote, which I have seen before but which should be better known, given how often some of his other quotes are co-opted to argue for caricatures of his actual opinion:

    To begin with [my concern] has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’, which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom, which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’.

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