Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Our Evolving Language?

Last week (a phrase that I believe pretty much always means "the week before this one"), I was listening to the radio, as I do regularly while at work. The day was Wednesday, July 25, and I was reminded of something that's been bothering me (mildly) for quite a while now.

The radio announcer mentioned the YouTube Debate that happened "last Monday". That debate had happened on Monday, July 23. That's a mere two days before the report I was listening to.

When I'm speaking, if it's a Wednesday, and I say "last Monday", what I mean is "the Monday of the previous week". That is, "9 days ago".

This is the idiomatic usage that I grew up with, and I believed that within the English speaking world, it was pretty much universal usage.

On a Wednesday, if I want to speak about something that happened two days earlier, I am happy to say "two days ago" or "on Monday". (Using a past tense verb in conjunction with this phrase clarifies that I'm speaking about the most recent Monday, rather than the upcoming Monday). I might even say "Monday", without using any sort of qualifier. But you won't catch me saying "last Monday" unless I'm mistaken about just how long ago the event happened.

Later the same day, again on the radio, I heard two mentions of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal that occurred in March 02007. Remember, I was listening to this report in July 02007. And twice in this one report, the scandal was mentioned as having broken "last March".

If it's July, and I say "last March", I do not mean "the most recent March". Instead, I mean "March of last year". If I mean to indicate "the most recent March", I will likely say "this March" or "in March", or "this past March". But I certainly would not say "last March". To me, "last March" means specifically not the March that occurred during this calendar year.

I started noticing people (mostly newscasters on both television and radio) using this (to me, bizarre) phraseology several years ago. More than about 15 years ago, I'm pretty sure I had never thought that saying "last Monday" or "last March" was an ambiguous usage. And now I'm pretty convinced that it's entirely ambiguous.

So my question to you, dear reader, is this:

Am I mistaken in believing that the usage and meaning of "last" has been undergoing an unnecessary and confusing transformation in recent years?

And here's The Repeal Of Gravity Blog's first poll ever:

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