sport news MARTIN SAMUEL: The BBC's thought police need to relax - word meanings are often ...

Language evolves. Quite literally, it does. We may think the meaning of words is finite and stable but at any time a great number of them are in flux.

You've read two in this column already. 'Literally' no longer refers to something actually happening. It was misused so frequently, the Oxford English Dictionary recently widened the definition to include use as an emphasiser.

'Them' has also broadened, to refer to a non-binary or non-gender-conforming person.

The BBC held a training session over avoiding racial bias with different companies last week

The BBC held a training session over avoiding racial bias with different companies last week

As for 'flux', well that's the point about evolution. It can be rather radical. 'Flux' used to mean diarrhoea, from the French flus, meaning heavy flow, and the Latin fluxus meaning loose.

By the early 17th century, however, it had evolved to mean a state of change. Anyone claiming to have been up all night with flux these days would be met with incomprehension. Apart from etymologists, the majority have no idea about archaic definition.

And it was the same with cakewalk, until last week, when broadcasters were advised against its use in commentary, as part of the latest assault on racial bias and common sense.

A meeting, hosted by the BBC but to which broadcasters including Sky, ITV, TalkSPORT, BT Sport and Premier League Productions were invited, set out words and phrases for commentators to avoid, as if derivation is indistinguishable from modern meaning - as if language isn't constantly on the move, developing not just over centuries but year on year.

The BBC invited Sky, ITV, BT Sport, Premier League production and talkSPORT to the session

The BBC invited Sky, ITV, BT Sport, Premier League production and talkSPORT to the session

The meaning of troll, friend, follow, handle, like, ping, swipe, profile, tablet, viral, text and tweet have all been changed just by the advent of the internet, by smartphones and social media.

And everyone knows the new meanings, everyone understands. When information is 'tweeted' nobody, of any generation, thinks it is being sung by birds. We all embrace linguistic evolution. So to return modern phraseology to times centuries past is in open defiance of the way language works.

Take one of the banned phrases: cakewalk. In modern parlance, it is something done with ease.

Yet historically, commentators were told, it was a highfalutin dance performed by slaves with plantation owners as judges, and a grand cake as the prize. But that use was extinct. It wasn't widely known, wasn't used in its original context anywhere but in lecture halls for language or history. Outside academia, cakewalk had evolved.

Except here we are in 2020 and it is back with its prejudicial arsenal intact.

A word that had been stripped of its long-forgotten spiteful meaning, has been restored.

Scott Joplin referenced 'the cakewalk prance' in his song The Ragtime Dance, and two of the biggest stars of the vaudeville era, George Walker and Bert Williams, would end their shows with a cakewalk.

Phrases to avoid were set out as if derivation is indistinguishable from modern meaning

Phrases to avoid were set out as if derivation is indistinguishable from modern meaning

This is not to justify its use. Walker and Williams were black men forced to perform in black face, who endured terrible racism throughout their careers, often from the white communities that delighted in their shows.

Their cakewalk comes from a horrible time. Yet so does calling an easy task 'a piece of cake' or saying that something 'takes the cake' - both phrases believed to have been associated with cakewalks. Yet their modern use left them declawed - until now. Rewinding language to source would impact on more than sports commentary.

Our everyday conversations are peppered with words that have nothing to do with the original meanings. 'Meat' did not refer to the flesh of an animal but to any solid food, including a plate of vegetables - or even hay.

'Our guides told us that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat,' noted Samuel Johnson in his 1775 work A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. He did not possess carnivorous horses.

Equally it was once frowned upon to be pretty and celebrated to be sly.

'Pretty' meant what sly does now, and 'sly' referred to a person who was clever or wise.

Other words that have performed U-turns are 'garble', which originally meant to sort something out, not to scramble it, and 'bully', which was another word for sweetheart, much like darling.

To 'quell' was to kill, and a 'clue' was a ball of yarn, that one might unravel to negotiate a maze.

If a person was 'silly' they were pious, and if they were 'naughty' they were poor.

Language is constantly on the move, developing not just over centuries but also year on year

Language is constantly on the move, developing not just over centuries but also year on year

Phrases like 'no can do' and 'long time no see' were a way of mocking fractured English. So now let's get offensive. For if we are confusing the meaning of words with their etymology - which is what the BBC and other broadcasters are doing - then all housewives should be bothered by 'hussy', used for a woman who is disreputable, lewd or lacking morality. It meant housewife initially.

Just as a 'husband' was a man who owned a house, and only became a marital state because men who owned houses were considered a good catch for single women.

Not spinsters, mind, because a 'spinster' was merely a woman who spun thread, not an unmarried woman.

It was a lousy job, often performed by those who hadn't landed a man with a house.

This is what makes policing modern language so dangerous. To stifle the evolution of words and phrases is a crime against humanity's greatest creation.

The nuances of speech, the subtleties, the way we bond through language, is an achievement to compare to any triumphs of technology or medicine. Of course, other species communicate too.

But they don't have slang, or poetry, they don't have Shakespeare or the lyrics of Joni Mitchell.

And they certainly don't have multiple words for snow - the English language has around 30, so we can presume that the various Inuit dialects count many more than the 50 of popular cliche.

Language is our masterpiece. So why would anyone try to shut it down?

The BBC and other broadcasters are confusing the meaning of words with their etymology

The BBC and other broadcasters are confusing the meaning of words with their etymology

Cos slavery, as Lily Allen might say. Yet if slavery is the issue, it is going to become quite complex describing the shirts of Newcastle or Sheffield United.

'Stripes', you see, were not a statement. In the early 15th century they were the marks left by a whip or lash.

And what type of person might receive such punishment? A person with no rights.

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