Got an issue with that?

© 2021 K Mansour

The English language boasts a rich vocabulary that is constantly growing and changing. Not only does English possess a copious number of subtlely differentiated synonyms, it also possesses a great many homonyms: like-sounding words that carry different meanings. Although many native speakers may not be conscious of their use of such words, they constantly avail themselves of them. Teachers of English writing, linguists, and second-language learners have the privilege of identifying and analyzing these homonyms. At issue here is “issue”, a word encompassing many shades of meaning. Let’s consider the following set of sentences:

  • This scientific society produced 10 issues of its periodical every year.
  • Since 2000, the mint has issued a new 25¢ coin yearly.
  • In the article, Anne Alfred quoted from Life Magazine, issue 7 of 1969.
  • Above all else, King Henry VIII pined for a male issue.
  • Tim listed 12 issues on the weekly agenda.
  • IT staff were unable to cope with the demand after being barraged with more than 200 new issues each day.
  • Parliament issued a new law governing trade between the provinces.
  • The couple took issue with the school’s disciplinary action against their energetic child.
  • Just because the boss mentioned the subject in passing, doesn’t mean you need to make an issue of it.
  • Upon entry to the construction site, each visitor was issued a hard hat.
  • After staying isolated for several months at home, he began to experience some serious mental health issues.
  • “We really can’t give Kim that responsibility—she’s got too many issues.”

Though each of these sentences presents a distinct shade of meaning for issue, a proficient speaker of modern English would utitilize them all, except for one that is obviously archaic. Multiplicity of meanings is an extremely common feature in language. A newly coined word can start out with a singular meaning, but over time, its meaning can shift as speakers creatively put it to use in new ways. Centuries ago, issue meant to proceed from or to put out, as still evidenced by some of the sentences. The one sentence that stands out as archaic refers to the use of issue in the sense of offspring. While this usage can be encountered in literature and historic texts, it has evaporated from everyday English. Next to its numerous shades of meanings, what I find most interesting about issue is its recent nuanced shift in connotation. Two decades ago, one could have referred to the 7 items on the agenda of a meeting interchangeably as “topics”, “subjects”, or “issues”. Could one still do the same today?

When we can’t stream a favorite program, we report the issue to the cable company. When email messages don’t arrive as expected, we bring the issue to the attention of the IT help desk. When a colleague experiences a melt-down, rumors of mental health issues begin to spread. If a process keeps failing, and we don’t know whey, we declare that “it’s become an issue”. An issue is something to work through until you untangle all its knots. When our mental health issues finally compel us to see a therapist, we are in dire need of help. Whenever a problem cannot be resolved, it remains an issue. You see, issue is no longer neutral like subject or topic. Nowadays, an issue does not only need to be discussed, but above all, it must be resolved.

How did issue move so subtlely in this direction? By a thousand tiny steps. Someone took the first step by using issue with a miniscule difference in connotation. Someone else heard it, liked it, and repeated it. Then more of us liked it and passed it on. Before we knew it, issue had been issued a new coat to wear. Just as a new shade of meaning comes into being, old meanings can also slowly fade away. Today, could you reasonably imagine a social gathering where someone exclaims “my issue is doing very well at her new business venture”? Sounding equally antiquated today, the phrase “blood issued from the wound” would not have garnered any special attention two centuries ago. After all, most early uses of issue carried a shade of meaning related to “proceed out of”. How did these once-valid meanings of issue vanish from the language? Very slowly.

Meanings can come and go through the revolving doors of language. We usually don’t even notice when they leave, though new uses get our attention when they enter with a bang. Once we get accustomed to a new entry, we stop being aware of it, just like old furniture in the room. People sit comfortably in the old upholstered armchair of their native language without giving much attention to the reserves of meanings they keep at their fingertips. Can you imagine how much time must pass before a new learner of English can hear, differentiate, collect and use the many meanings of issue? It could really turn out to be an issue.

Language lives and changes because we, its human agents, wield it to express our thoughts and feelings. Language is fluid and active. In fact, it is the only machine known to stay in perpetual motion. Got an issue with that?

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Kamal Mansour

Kamal Mansour

Loves words, languages, and alphabets

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