If you are an intermediate-level learner of English, you will likely know the word “overwhelming”, which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, means very great in amount, but have you heard of the word “underwhelming”? The word means “Fail to impress or make a positive impact on (someone); disappoint.”
Interestingly, the word “underwhelming” originated from the word “overwhelming” in the 1950s. It’s quite amazing that this word didn’t emerge until then because there has been record of use of the word “overwhelming” as early as in the early 14th century. A total space of 600 years has lapsed in between the emergence of the two words so strikingly similar in origin.
What, then, does this tell us about English learning? I believe that this tells us that we shouldn’t restrain our imagination when it comes to inventing new words which are useful for communication. Anyone of us has the potential to rewrite the course of evolution of a language. When novel ways of expressing new meanings come to mind, we should be bold enough to communicate them to other users of the language. Who knows how many others will pick up our self-invented usages? We really shouldn’t be so dogmatic as to restrict ourselves to prescriptivist usages when changes to a language foster communication.
This also tells us that a language is organic, fluid and malleable. It is always receptive to reforms and every one of us have the power to transform it. Since we’re all so powerful, we should learn to wield this power well and responsibly. And being responsible means striving to acquire the wisdom to distinguish which changes to a language do foster communication.