On Language: Are you anxious or eager?

Today’s post is about the words Anxious and Eager.

Mary was anxious to buy a new car.

Sid was anxious to meet her.

We anxiously awaited the train.

All three correct, because anxious and eager mean the same thing, right?

Well, no.

Our language, being a living language, is always changing.

The English language would be much poorer today if the Norman French hadn’t invaded Saxon England in 1066 and brought with them a whole new vocabulary: words like ancestor, attain, bachelor, boutique, chevalier, clarinet, cul-de-sac–to name just a very, very few. Look up a list of English words of French origin and you will see just how thoroughly the French language embedded itself into English beginning with the Norman Conquest.

Similar things happen on a smaller scale whenever English-speaking peoples come in contact with people from other civilizations and cultures: From Greek, we get atlas, chaos, muse, and democracy, the very foundation of our government,

Mogul and Mantra from Hindi,

Algebra and Coffee from Arabic,

Angst and Kaput from German,

And last but not least, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and eight other U.S. state names, plus hundreds of county, town, river, and creek names from the Native American people displaced from their lands by their European invaders.

It seems early settlers loved Indian places names, but Indian people themselves–not so much.

Okay, back to anxious and eager.

The foundation of modern English and the Romance languages (Spanish,PortugueseFrenchItalian, and Romanian ) is Latin.

The word Anxious comes from Latin, and means uneasy, greatly troubled by uncertainties. The origin of Eager is also Latin, and means enthusiastic, wanting to do or be something very much.

Now go back to the three questions above.

Was Mary uneasy or greatly troubled about buying a new car? Or was she enthusiastic, wanting to do it?

She could have been either, depending on circumstances, but most likely the prospect of buying a new car made her enthusiastic and very much wanting to do it. Thus, she was eager .

The same could be said of the next two sentences: The desired word probably would be eager.

Yet nine out of ten times these days when you hear someone say anxious they really mean eager.

Language purists like me get their innards all twisted when they hear these meanings commingled. We don’t like perfectly good words taken over by other words that don’t really mean the same. We want anxious to mean troubled about something and eager to mean looking forward to something.

ALAS,

Language purists like me are fighting a losing battle on keeping words as they are. Because here we come to another truism about our living English language:

Over time, word meanings change.

Once, awful used to mean awe-inspiring. Now it means really bad.

Meat was once any solid food, as opposed to drink. Now it refers to animal flesh.

Not that long ago, if you said something was dear, you meant it was expensive. Now if you say something is dear, you probably mean it is loved and cherished.

This meaning migration is one of the things that makes English such a rich, vital language. Popular usage makes it happen, over and over again. We can’t stop it.

Anxious and eager could have different meanings to future English speakers. (Assuming there will be future English or any other speakers, given what we have been doing to our planet. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

HOWEVER,

In our lifetimes, I’m still a language purist. I’d still like to see us use anxious to mean uneasy or greatly troubled about something, and eager to mean greatly enthusiastic about it.

That’s my two cents’ worth.

As always, Peace and Joy,

And thanks for reading my blog.

Marjorie Beck

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