“THE LAND WAS ours before we were the land’s.” So begins Robert Frost’s sonnet “The Gift Outright.” In it he tells how the immigrants to North America, including those who came across the land bridge where the Bering Strait now is, adapted themselves to the landscape. We became the land’s by living in it and, above all, by naming it—conjuring in the names a new reality.
As soon as words begin to be used, they begin to change, and so the history of a language develops and changes. Expressions jostle together in new ways in a new place and the language becomes new.
Dictionaries and printing may capture a moment in the life of a word, and purists hope to keep it in the same state as it was recorded in documents. Early in the eighteenth century, English writers thought that the language might be fixed for eternity, and Jonathan Swift wrote a proposal explaining how that goal might be achieved. Swift was, however, wrong. All the king’s men could not bring language to perfection and keep it that way.
A generation later, Samuel Johnson declared that English could not be fixed in place. Change was inevitable. Dictionary makers ever since