The Boston Globe's language columnist, Jan Freeman, wrote this Sunday about the changing meaning of the word chauvinism. I enjoy her column a lot, and I was surprised and pleased to see that she cited my blog post about chauvinism as the starting point for her column. It discusses chauvinism and two other words and phrases whose meanings changed: "cut bait" and "scan." She also talks about how language changes:
People who object to such language changes sometimes say, "Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it right." But what's true about speeding or tax fiddling does not apply to language change; if everyone does it, that does, eventually, make it right. Often, we don't even notice that a meaning is changing; older speakers use a word one way, younger ones a different way, but not so different that it sets off alarms.
John McIntyre talked about this over at You Don't Say yesterday (That's how I was alerted to the Globe column, which I missed this week):
Language becomes what its users collectively make of it. That is how Anglo-Saxon was transformed into English, mainly by a rabble of illiterate peasants, and no one should be sorry about that.
UPDATE: Since it has sparked a few mentions in the comments, here's Jan Freeman's further discussion of "cut bait" on her blog.